Absolving Your Doubt

Doubt is a funnel web, sometimes woven with a fraying yarn in a disconnected pattern of lazy loops and holes, other times knitted securely with steel thread. It’s threads are snapped sometimes by a hurricane and other times by a gentle cool breeze, and here and there, it catches little flies of certainty. 

If I were to draw my life as a two-dimensional line it would look like more like an underground ant nest than any specific trajectory. There would be straight and clear lines dug out expertly and then slowly wobble to an unimpressive stall. There would be a series of bold left turns into uncharted territory just to end with a sudden stop and a new line appear somewhere else. Despite this obvious image, I have spent a majority of my life hooked on the idea that knowing — following a clear and certain path accompanied by praise and accolades and then projecting that image to the world — is the way to prove you are valued. There is no room for questions or concerns, just forward movement.

Ignorant of privilege and systemic injustice, this is the New American Dream: Know the answer, be the best at what you do, always have a forward trajectory, take home the bragging rights. Despite the evidence I’ve seen with my own eyes otherwise, in spite of how far we’ve come and how much we claim to question the American Dream and individualism, I have spent so much energy in wanting desperately to be and to be seen as good. For the way to be clear.  

And here’s the thing. As each new year roles around, the pressure always seems to mount to be on that line. To focus, to pull inward, to analyze one’s personal successes and failures. Social media is lazy simultaneously with Top 9’s and promises of a better/newer you if you just buy this thing, lose those pounds, look like this. While there isn’t anything wrong with reflection, this particular version is so much less than that. It becomes about saying “I am not good or lovable enough, without correction.” So we make these resolutions as clear plans to fix ourselves and our wrongness.

But you know the truth of New Years’ Resolutions? Most of us fail. By viewing ourselves as problems to be fixed, as people who have to constantly start over, we fail.

Throughout my life, I find I can trace back into those abrupt corners, cycles, and stall-outs and see plain evidence of (sometimes loud) questioning of that measuring stick. Moments, even whole years are visible when I have been confident in the indeterminate outcomes of what I’m doing and been certain that knowing and having such a clear path is an utterly unattainable and even ridiculous goal. I even subtitled this blog as “leaning into the dark” and headed it as “somewhere between the lines” because I have found that this is what reality is. Embracing the unknown, and questioning the known has to be a constant reminder for me, because it’s so often been my greatest struggle. I’ve expressed doubt throughout these circumstances in different ways: rebellion, anger, sadness. Other times, it has been a place of hope, of connection, of validation, of empathy. Sometimes I can see it with pinpointed clarity, other times the water is cloudy and the picture not fully formed.

Have you ever felt yourself swimming against the current desperately trying to reach branches and rocks you envision as stability? Has it ever felt like you have been caught in the swells and whirlpools and struggling to just get to the edge while everyone else seems to be out of the water unpacking their picnic on the shore? Welcome to doubt. What if, you just let go?

Doubt looks like rebellion.

Symptoms of major depressive disorder and ADHD remained un-diagnosed until I was nearly 16. While I had been in supportive environments that held and embraced different learning and self-paced work, I struggled from the minute I walked into 9th grade until late high school. So I found myself on the outside, and often lived into and projected that identity in order to avoid the pain. Couple that with your average teenage angst and the storm gathered and the rain came on fairly quick and heavy.

My response when a class was difficult or moved too fast or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, was not challenging or interesting, was to not spend my precious and limited gems of focus. When I struggled so desperately to sit for 80 minute periods I drew all over my arms or held a concert by repetitively clicking the tops of pens just to keep from jumping out of my seat, my general response was to put on airs and display them as a flag of not caring, clothe myself in continuous eye rolls, and half-ass excuses and refuse to work because it was better than being seen as a failure. I was good at hiding my struggle until I wasn’t. This was interpreted by the teachers and school system as a combination of laziness and lack of intelligence. Even when I hinted at expressing doubt or frustration at the system or challenged it’s limiting values I was rebuked, silenced, settled down. So instead I hid behind a calculated rebellion of trying to prove I didn’t care, and a complex system of half-truths, excuses, and lying that I believed would keep me from dissolving.

Doubt looks like anger

It wasn’t until the early to mid-aughts that I outwardly questioned that being on the outside, hovering on the fringe, and carrying the dusty and familiar bone aching anxieties of doubt was an accurate assessment of unworthiness. I started writing a blog in seminary because I was experiencing the peculiar awkwardness of vacillating rapidly between pushing back against the particular protestant seminarian culture of certainty where knowing seemed to be the ultimate test of one’s faith, and also wanting desperately to fit in to it.  

My seminary experience is perhaps a more muddied illustration of the complexities of doubt. The expectation of knowing wasn’t something that was defined out loud, but it was in the way that classes were structured, the trajectories that were promoted as ideal, the conversations in the cafeteria, the ways in which there was an unspoken rule about being confidant and resolute in your understandings of God and the world even with evidence of this not being based in any sort of theological truth. It was in the cultural veneration of marrying young and having children soon, in the undercurrents of sexism that happened in the dismissal and interruption of women’s voices in classrooms, the erasure of people who were LGBTQ, in the racial, sexist, and xenophobic microaggressions spilling out of walls and into conversations. It was in encountering almost no women or non-white theologians and writers until my third trimester of classes. It was in heated classroom exchanges where students passively and aggressively challenged each other’s commitment to their faith. 

So sometimes I pushed back and questioned professors and students and even found myself in the Dean’s office a couple of times pushing the buttons of accepted seminary life. Other times, pulled between academics and failing mental health and frank exhaustion, I fell into long periods of silence. I dove between isolation and anger. Flight and Fight. So anger, whether it was simmering or boiling over became my modus operandi.

Doubt looks like validation

One of the more profound times I recognized some of these unspoken cultural mores being challenged was by a visiting professor who was smart, sarcastic, and with her teaching style and content, pushed the buttons on that cultural expectation of knowing that seemed to permeate everywhere. She challenged long-held beliefs and encouraged and assigned dissent in her classroom. Where up to that point, I’d mostly experienced professors tip-toeing toward the line, she was putting on her best snark suit and diving in. She’d made some waves that slurped into the edges of small christian seminary gossip. I ended up taking her for two classes, but the most memorable was a treatise on eschatology. The class was full and it had been scheduled to take place right across from the President’s office. Whether it was intentional or not, didn’t matter–the eyes of the panopticon were in effect–in that classroom, it felt like she and we were being watched. And those eyes blinked out their message that doubt of the status quo is not acceptable here.

I have talked about this class and this moment before, but couldn’t always put my finger on why it was so important. More often than not I believe it’s because it was a relative outsider who appeared to be questioning the status quo anyway. Encouraging doubt through humor and then taking the questioning seriously was a new feeling. It was not even only about the class material, but that she arrived at a time I needed to see someone who was young and a woman creating a space for herself and who had ideas and questions about theology that also used the same sources and presented from the same old dead white guys I’d been learning from previously. Doubt is a complex thing, and being supported in your doubt and encouraged to ask the questions is both relieving and frightening.

I always say my seminary story and the years that have now come after will never make the front page of a website other than my own. And yet, I still wished to be valued as good. While knowing and even sometimes being resolutely confident that I didn’t take the road most traveled, still in this moment I really crave that validation from a system that was and in many ways is, somewhat broken. I have days I become completely unsure of my choices and embarrassed by my self-perceived failure at not having the things I don’t even think I want (ordination into a church job). Other days, I am both resolute and proud of my pursuits, and that I have leaned into my doubt and pushed the buttons and colored outside the lines. My real and true regret is that I didn’t do it more, and louder.

Doubt looks like empathy

One of the things I loved about the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the recent Mr. Rogers’ film, is that it highlights the ideas that being loved and valued exactly as you are, and also that we can work on ourselves and do better are not in contradiction. There is a scene where Joanne Rogers essentially says that to call Fred a saint was to say that the person he was is unattainable, when the truth is he has to work on himself to be the way he is. But the message of Mr. Rogers’ is consistent that we deserve to be loved exactly as we are in that moment, no matter our inexactness or imperfection.

Fred understood most of all that feelings and questions are a part of being human. In her book “The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers” Amy Hollingsworth details an experience Fred had with bullying when he was younger. The adults around him told him to just act like he didn’t care and it didn’t bother him and that then the bullies would leave him alone. Fred’s response was that he didn’t believe it was right. He still resented the teasing and that the boys who hurt him couldn’t see past his shyness and sadness. He was mad at the adults who trivialized his feelings. He cried into his hands and made up songs on the piano. As an adult he spent so much of his time on screen validating and encouraging the feelings of children, while most of the status quo of television was about distraction. He sang songs like “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel” and talked about big scary subjects like war and death that we often hide from children.

Modeling and seeing doubt being modeled in ways that are healthy and constructive means we learn how to do it well. Sometimes that’s as simple as saying “I don’t know either” to someone scrambling in the river and offering to swim alongside them for awhile. The ones who doubted the established norms are, after all, the ones who changed the trajectory, who proved the earth is round, who channeled electricity, who protested and ultimately changed unjust laws, who led revolts and coups against tyrants. They are the ones who create and dream and write our greatest stories and breathe our most beloved art into existence. Being the doubter does not mean you need to be great, or famous, or even known. Being the doubter means sitting with someone who is left out, speaking up when something isn’t right, and not letting yourself fall into the trap of needing to know.

So if you don’t know what you believe, what your next steps are, your five year plan, your new year’s resolution, or even what you are having for dinner tonight, I am here to selfishly and perhaps even egotistically absolve you from needing to know. You don’t need have a plan, or even follow the one you’ve crafted. You don’t need to meet any standard set in front of you just because it’s been the usual way. You don’t need carry that unknowing as the heavy stone in your pocket, between your ribs with each careful measured breath, at the small of your back, or hunched between your shoulder blades. You can drop it right into the exhausted rush of water, and carry on not knowing.

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