Doubt: The Heart of Rebellion in Uncertain Times

To doubt is to disobey our built-in temptation to settle. Some people thrive on doubt, and some avoid it at all costs. Doubt is one of the cornerstones of Zen practice, and it’s what pushed Siddhartha from his cushy palace life onto the streets.


By John Lee Pendall

“Almost unfailingly, innovative ideas, revolutionary ideas, ideas that are full of life don’t survive within institutions. There’s a reason why institutions rarely ever produce creative geniuses. It’s because creativity thrives where life is chaotic, beautiful, and a tad dangerous.” – Daniele Bolelli

I’m perpetually unsettled, but I’ve settled with that.

I feel like I have more in common with the restless Existentialists than I do forest dwelling monks. I would have fit right in in 1940’s Paris where angst and hope, order and upheaval, were in an all out orgy with each other. Escaping to an inner calm and outer sensibility was considered a defeated way to live.

Wherever you looked, you would find the spirit of social, political and sexual revolution in full bloom. It was a time when philosophy was ripped away from the academics and reclaimed by poets, artists, musicians, and the lay intelligentsia.

Technology soon made it a global revolution, though it took a few decades for it to catch on in the States where it became the Beat, Civil Rights, Feminist and Free Love movements. That lineage of rebellion has a time of death somewhere in the 80’s after it contracted a terminal case of the self-destructive and nihilistic punk scene of the mid-70’s.

After that, the academics once again took their spot at the head of the table, and that’s how it’s been for the last 30 years or so. The grunge movement in the 90’s tried to breathe some life back into rebellion, but it was too full of self-doubt and fatalism to truly shift our culture away from suburban malaise, textbooks and plastic.

The rebellious spirit is still alive in various movements these days, but that’s the problem—they’re plural, each one standing for and against different things. And they all lack the concise, creative, and compelling literature that made past movements so persuasive and, well, moving.

Instead of trying to liberate people, the greatest thinkers of our time waste away in classrooms, where they fill students’ heads with the arbitrary knowledge required for them to inherit the post.

Some of them take it to the streets, trying their best to inform a willfully uninformed public about the issues of the era. Yet speaking up is dangerous in the academic world. A professor’s behavior can help or hurt the university they work for, so administrators tend to keep their teachers on short leashes.

Even the teachers who do speak out run into roadblocks because people don’t trust academics. I’m guessing it’s because they seem unrelatable.

We automatically trust someone more if they’re similar to us or make us laugh. A few academics—like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson—have been able to breakthrough that invisible wall. They were able to bring their personalities to the table, they were able to inspire and motivate even people who had no nerdy tendencies, but none of them were able to win the hearts of people on social issues.

Whenever I see a post from Tyson on social media commenting on climate change, there are a sea of voices shouting, “You’re an astrophysicist! Get back in your lane!”

Then there’s the religious resistance. When a co-worker started talking to me about God once, I was kind of shocked, not because she brought it up at work, but because I had forgotten that people still believed in God. All of the churches and, “Jesus Saves,” bumper stickers around here should have been a dead giveaway, but I kind of tuned them out after awhile.

Science and philosophy are both natural threats to religion since they involve maintaining a questioning mind. Religion plays on our fear of uncertainty, science and philosophy turn uncertainty into something sacred in itself.

Doubt is the heart of rebellion.

To doubt is to disobey our built-in temptation to settle. Some people thrive on doubt, and some avoid it at all costs. Doubt is one of the cornerstones of Zen practice, and it’s what pushed Siddhartha from his cushy palace life onto the streets.

I think that certainty is a waste. If we don’t wonder, then it’s difficult to experience wonder. Children are far wiser in this way than most adults. Children wonder, so they see wonder everywhere.

Children are comfortable with doubt, and they use it correctly. The trouble starts when we get older and stop asking questions. We go on autopilot and sacrifice our ability to think for ourselves and make our own choices. We love personalizing our smartphones, but we tend to keep the default settings when it comes to ourselves.

For one second, we just have to cover our ears and listen to our hearts; close our eyes and look for our own compass. Pluck out the words we’ve been taught to say and speak with our own authentic voice. What we see, hear, and say might not make sense, but we’re under no obligation to make sense to ourselves or others. Even if what we end up saying is nonsensical, at least it’ll be true.

Truth and doubt go hand in hand. For Contemplatives, that truth is the truth of doubt, of its transformative power. As one old koan goes:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “I am wandering aimlessly.”
“What do you think of while you’re wandering?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not knowing is most intimate.”
Fayan was suddenly awakened.

Wandering aimlessly, not knowing—that’s the stuff that dreamers are made of. We need our dreamers. We need our artists, poets and writers to find their voices and reach out to us, to unsettle us. We’ve settled in as a society, and that’s why everything is gradually being claimed by the destructive chaos of entropy.

We have to wake up, but not necessarily to some esoteric truth, but to that forgotten wondering mind that served us so well when we were young. We need our philosophers back, those lay researchers who weren’t afraid to roll in the mud, to put their humanity on display alongside their thoughts.

I’m truly sorry if you’re drawn to comfort and certainty, because those are ideals that nature just can’t satisfy for long. Life is full of upheavals because life is an upheaval. It’s a profound middle finger jabbed at, to the best of our knowledge, an otherwise lifeless universe. For all we know, this could be the only planet that life has taken root on, and this life could be the only life we get. This possibility alone should be enough to rattle us awake, to make us appreciate all the little quiet intimacies that fill our days.

Not knowing is definitely most intimate, and if there’s anything we’re sorely lacking as a culture, it’s intimacy with each other, our surroundings and ourselves.

I say that if the academics aren’t willing to pickup the torch that was passed to them by the Phenomenologists, Existentialists and Hippies, then it’s up the Contemplatives to create something new and pay it forward.

We have to assert ourselves, live the codes we’ve created and bring the cultural mind back to the big questions like, “Who am I? What is truth? What is the good life?” We need to dedicate our lives to never settling for definitive answers.

These questions have never been about finding a final answer, but about using doubt to make our lives into the answer.

In a time when reality TV show hosts displaying signs of dementia can become president, when millions of people are certain that the Earth is flat, and when suddenly it’s okay to be a Nazi again, the most pertinent question is, “What the fuck is going on around here?”



Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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