Doubting and trusting
It's astonishing to me how great a part trust plays in our memories. When I was younger and less doubting, I would never wonder whether I had remembered something correctly. I would either know it or I wouldn't.
"Yes, Mount Whitney is the second-highest peak in the United States. No, I don't know how high it is." Or, more to the point: "No, I did notm tell Susan that you thought her dress was ugly. I don't know how she found out."
We defend ourselves with trust. Nowadays, if someone questioned whether or not I had done something, I would be likely to say what I believed was right -- and then perhaps be nagged by the possibility that I had remembered incorrectly. I know that I have let my defenses down as I've grown older; but I don't know exactly why.
In college, I recall being trained to doubt exquisitely. No historical event was quite as it seemed, nor did any author's meaning rest precisely in the face value of his or her words.
I learned to exceed the professors' reading lists, to investigate the questionable text or the confusing issue. But the more work I did, the more work it became necessary to do. Once doubting, I could not decide where to begin trusting.
It was all very well to read Descartes, whose scepticism may have exceeded mine. I often became frustrated with his writing, whether in the English translation or in the French original to which I constantly turned for reassurance. Despite his doubt, he seemed to maintain some inner calm.He did not, apparently, doubt everything.
He seemed never to doubt that he would arrive at somem extraordinary answer -- some answer that, good or bad, would embrace central facts of human consciousness. He seemed also to be satisfied with his sense of place and time, at least in the day-to-day world. One commentator whose work I read pointed out that Descartes never doubted history. That oversight surprised me, who managed to do so without much trouble.
If college had offered a course in trusting, I'm sure I would have been the first to sign up for it. But no such course existed, or exists. Trust, after all, is akin to faith; and faith is a dimension of the individual which institutions have difficulty entering. Even churches, as I found out, can only gesture at ways of acquiring trust. They can provide outlines, examples, exhortations; but the final insight, the final peace, is in the province of the individual alone.
Unfortunately, the anxiety occasioned by a pervasive distrust suffers none of the institutions' limitations. It can attack at any time -- when one believes that one has forgotten to leave an important note to a friend; when one believes that the book one is reading was printed from a corrupt manuscript; when one suspects the food one is eating or the telephone that one is talking into.
An extraordinary aspect of distrust is that it becomes a form of worship in itself -- a counter-vision of the world, in which making it through the day is tantamount to salvation.
How can someone live this way? One can't -- that is, one cannot livem this way. Escaping pervasive doubt is also a tricky question, since one can't will one's way out of it. One can't force oneself to write on a blackboard, one hundred times, "I will not worry about what I said to Mrs. N. today." Doubt is itself a curious form of will. In a head-on battle, complacentm will against doubtingm will, doubting will generally wins.
However, a moment of astonishing insight or intuition will absolutely eradicate doubt. Though still infrequent, these moments are beginning to restore the defenses I let down in college.
For example, a few days ago I was flipping through a collection of Robert Frost's poetry and prose. Among some early, previously unpublished poems, was one called "Warning." I was arrested by two lines:
There is no memory for what is true.
The heart once silent.
I had just been doubting something I knew, deep down, was true -- doubting that I had given a friend the right change for a large bill, when I knewm that I had. What had happened? My doubt had forced my heart to be silent. It had silenced my "still small voice," which was crucial to my memory. Without trusting myself, how could I remember anything? I might have been imagining it, or might just have got it wrong. Intuitively, however, I knew I could trust myself. I knew my sense of the continuity of events, of cause and effect, could only be overridden by an after-the-fact, marauding doubt.
Once my trust in this intuitive sense of things was restored, the doubt vanished. The heart, while not loud, was no longer silent; and memory became again a reliable tool.
Doubt has a way of closing the mind to possibilities, while trust opens it up. When up against the wall, I have always trusted that a liberating idea will come to me -- such as the idea from the Frost poem.These liberating ideas are funny things. They come like thunder, yet they bring along no physical certainties; their warmth is not a bodily warmth, their reassurance is not in words spoken out of thin air.
Yet they are no less real for that. They plant us squarely in the real world , giving us a sure sense of real events and trustworthy reflections. They are an unseen power that opens the mind to astonishing frames of thought and action.
These ideas are a defense, not against the real world, but against the imaginary world that doubt would have use believe to be real.
As I grow more willing to reject doubt as a way of viewing the world, I begin to know again what it was like, when a child, to trust intutively. Cause and effect, memory, and senses such as taste, touch and smell may not be absolute evidence of truth or trustworthiness. But our intuition, or "heart", can lift us into the certainties of what we perceive -- though slowly, slowly.