In Praise of Doubt


The main thing I took from studying Sociology at college was to question where information comes from. Why is this person or organisation telling me this, and why now? What are their motives? I think about this when reading the news, listening to official government narratives, when hearing clients’ stories, when reading fiction, and even when writing my own reflective diary.

It seems particularly relevant at the moment to question the mainstream media and government narratives, with the rise of ‘fake news’. When the stories we are told are full of certainty, painting people as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, my ears prick up. It reminds me of the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore (but not the terrible film adaptation), in which an artificial enemy is created in an attempt to unite humanity. It also makes me think of the danger of fundamentalist thinking as explored in the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (and the excellent film adaptation). Everybody I know is full of contradiction and nuance, so I can’t help but wonder why someone would believe, or claim to believe, otherwise.

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty” – Ursula le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

While listening to client stories I try to hold onto uncertainty as it can be an easy trap to think that I have understood someone. Aha, this person is suffering from depression! Now I understand them! Except what exactly is depression? Is it the same for two different people? What about when the criteria for diagnosis changes over time (e.g. in the DSM-5) – does that mean we have understood it better, or that the nature of it has now changed? Sometimes I think diagnosis may be helpful, but I believe it’s important to try and see the person beyond that in all their complexity and nuance – knowing that ultimately, I can never know what it is like to be them. I also believe that questioning our own narratives can be incredibly liberating. For example, a client of mine believed that no matter how hard they tried, they would always fail in the end. That narrative may have helped them survive in the past, but it was causing them distress in the present. Questioning it by beginning to notice times when they were dismissing their own successes and focussing overly on their perceived failures, started to shift that narrative. It can be an empowering feeling to question one’s reality and that theme is often explored in popular culture (e.g. in The Matrix, or more recently in the TV show Westworld).

“I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula

However I also know that doubt can be a difficult place to be, and that holding onto certainty even despite evidence to the contrary can be incredibly appealing, and sometimes necessary to survive. I hold onto false certainties all the time – that I’m a ‘man’, that money exists beyond our faith in it, that ‘I’ exist separately to the world or that somehow I’m impermanent. For me though, the right amount of doubt can be powerful and freeing, bringing up options and paths I never knew existed.