Doubt

[Words by Peter Birkenhead]

One of the things I’m really looking forward to in the next few years is the return of doubt. Remember good old doubt? Remember reading between lines, pulling back curtains and leaving no stone unturned? Well, they’re all due for a comeback, and are already turning up in places they haven’t been seen in for a long time, like Congressional hearing rooms, newspaper opinion pages, television scripts and pop song lyrics. But we’re still a long, long way from the days when a good, healthy capacity for doubt was a prerequisite of adulthood, and the hallmark of a thriving culture.

Can you imagine John F. Kennedy walking with that crazy body-building-chimp “swagger” that Bush walks with? Kennedy had his own distinctive gait, of course, but he walked like what he was—a man in pain from injuries he suffered in an actual war. He didn’t need to convince anyone he was a hero. Kennedy kept his arms at his side when he walked, like a person, and he allowed himself to be photographed hunched over with worry during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That picture is now, of course, an iconic image of heroic doubt, and seems sadly anachronistic.

But let’s face it, George Bush doesn’t have to doubt himself anymore than Donald Trump does, or an American Idol. We’ve created a culture where it’s not likely they will ever be forced to examine their prejudices or flaws. But they will be denied the true confidence of the hunched-over people who are brave enough to face their doubts and live to tell about it. The people who think there are worse things than feeling insecure once in a while. Like, say, being too secure. Like being so pumped up by steroidic pseudo confidence, and so anesthetized by sentimentality, that you are incapable of feeling doubt, and of experiencing the world.

Why is my ninety-five year old Grandmother more of a man than George Bush? Why is it that, even though she recently lost her husband of seventy-two years, and can’t sit in a chair for more than a few minutes because of osteoporosis, even though she greets me at the airport like I’m lucky to have survived the flight, even though she drives from one connected parking lot to the next so as to avoid the mean streets of West Palm Beach, and her cooking has always been devoted less to the cultivation of flavor than the killing of germs, she still flew a thousand miles in agony to throw a clump of dirt on her husband’s grave, and is one of the happiest people I know?

It’s not because she’s “tough.” She didn’t get to be so happy by toughing things out, she got there by taking things in, and dealing with them. Her generation was warned by FDR about the corrosive peril of fear, and they took the admonishment to heart, but thank goodness they allowed themselves a little doubt. Imagine if they had approached their moment in history with the grandiose, infantile self-image with which we’ve approached ours. Imagine what the world would look like if they’d had the disdain for humility we do, if they relied on a conception of themselves as innately good and entitled, if they allowed themselves to think they knew everything, and therefore learned nothing. Without the wisdom of doubt, without the grace of humility, not to mention the simple ability to learn from mistakes, would anyone have called them “The Greatest Generation?” (And by the way, don’t we do a disservice to them with that moniker—didn’t they fight against all things “Greatest”, and on the side of splendid imperfection?) My Grandmother’s happiness is not of the Let-A-Smile-Be-Your-Umbrella variety, it’s more like the now-that-the-rain’s-stopped-let’s-enjoy-each-other’s-company-’cause-another-storm’s-coming kind.

And thank God for that.

But our generation has erected a culture of entitlement, a corporate culture that ingeniously insulates us from the doubt we disdain. The cubicles and convolutions of the modern corporate world have diffused responsibility, and therefore the need for doubt, to the point of meaninglessness, and the engorged enormity of conglomerates has made it impossible to avoid being part of the problem. We huddle on our corporate campuses, or in our massive McMansions, tucked away in gated communities, swathed in layer upon layer of soft and soporific comfort to protect ourselves from the cold, cold draft of doubt.

And so, we can barely feel our own culture anymore. Not just because our movies are made by committees of people who apparently hate movies, and our singers sing as if they’re embarrassed by melody, but because even the good movies and good songs, the good stuff made by people who doubt themselves every day, has to fight through so many layers of swaddling, all the way down to our company logo-embossed fleece hoodies, to get to us.

The bad stuff, though, is everywhere. More and more barriers to consolidated ownership of media outlets fall every year, so we’re getting our information from a trough that the local newspapers and TV and radio stations have all filled from the same tap. And they’re filling it with narcotic banality: pillow-embroidery and locker room aphorisms meant to remove doubt. We’ve been convinced that good things go to people who “want it more than the other guy,” that we prove our specialness by having the same “hopes and dreams” as our neighbors, and that wealth is a reward, and poverty a penalty.

We’ve forgotten how valuable doubt can be. We’ve forgotten that doubt is a hill that hope climbs, that without it our spirits atrophy. We’ve forgotten how much we need it. I mean for crying out loud, without doubt all we’d have left is the Pope, bad drivers and Texas.

Because we sneer at doubt, the highest compliment we pay each other these days is that we “know what we want and how to get it.” That makes us sound brave, but of course, by banishing doubt we’ve cultivated fear. If we question the President about Iraq, we’re not being properly curious, we’re being insufficiently afraid. If we’re afraid of monsters it’s because they’re real, and hiding everywhere. If we’re afraid of the dark it’s because we should be. There’s nothing to be learned by looking under the bed.

My Grandmother, for all her phobias, has never been afraid of the dark. Last time I saw her she taught me her recipe for her ice cream soda as if it was the secret of life, which of course it is. The secret to a great ice cream soda, the kind my grandmother makes, is packing the ice cream down at the bottom of the glass, rather than letting it float at the top. That way, the ice cream can be enjoyed at the end, like a reward for your patience. It maintains its structural integrity, and absorbs the soda without being destroyed by it. As we drank our sodas, we were watched over by a little statue of Einstein on my grandmother’s living room shelf, a small copper likeness that’s somehow rumpled and kinetic. As Einstein’s did in life, the statue’s face contains an infinity of human-ness: astute and awed, bemused and melancholy. Most of all it is conscious. It is fearlessly taking it all in, absorbing it. And dealing with it. He’s staring down at a map of the cosmos—a circular map of the universe that he taught us to see as a circle, that he revealed in it’s bended completeness as much as Colombus had the Earth. What a timely gift he gave us—because we know that our universe is curved and our place in it is relative, we know that the closest thing there is to an absolute evil is absolutism itself, and that light created millions of years ago is visible to us every day, not only in the sparkle of distant stars but in the eyes of people like my grandmother and Albert Einstein.

I was comforted by my meager and surely mangled understanding of the theory of special relativity as I downed my big, cold ice cream soda. And as I did, I watched my grandmother, and her un-dimmable eyes, and I listened to her voice swell with love when she mentioned the name of anyone in the family. As I dug into deep, delicious muck, I learned another ice cream soda lesson from her: that a life well lived will be sweetest and richest at the bottom of the glass. The ice cream there isn’t white anymore, but it isn’t exactly the color of cola, either. It’s a little dark, and a little light, and totally, fully, completely wonderful.