Quiet That Niggling Doubt

For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’

– John Greenleaf Whittier (from the poem “Maud Muller”)

Regret is an unpleasant emotion. It’s that niggling doubt, that suspicion that you should have played your hand differently in a certain situation. By far the biggest regrets I have are for those times when I knew deep down what I should do but ignored that inner voice and did something else. Most often, it’s been because I chose to take the easy road. I did not what I suspected I should do, but what I thought other people—maybe family or friends—would want me to do, or because I was trying to fit in with my peer group or society as a whole. Those are the big regrets.

There are also little regrets, usually for times I held back and did NOT do something. In general, I think it is better to go for the gusto and possibly fail or look foolish than to hold back, trying to maintain a cool detachment. Far too often, I have chosen the latter course.

Here’s a story about a time I did not hold back. I was alone at a bar (always awkward) and I thought I saw a girl I knew from way back in grade school. The bar was dark, and she was on the far side of the room, so I really didn’t get a good look at her. Furthermore, I was sitting at a bar in Boston but had gone to grade school in Des Moines, Iowa. The person I was looking at would have been someone I hadn’t seen in over 10 years, and I had to mentally age the girl I knew in grade school into a young woman. In other words, there was a good deal of imagination at play on my part. Still, she looked attractive and I spent quite a while nursing my drink, wondering if I should approach her.

Eventually I worked up the courage and began making my way across the crowded room to where she and her friend sat. As I neared them, I could plainly see that she was not the person I thought she was. This was not Ellen from Woodlawn Elementary School. I felt powerless to stop myself, though, as if once in motion this body had to complete the task at hand. So I went up to her and said, “Excuse me, are you from Des Moines?” which is probably the only possible pick-up line dumber than, “Hey, baby, what’s your sign?” Happily, she didn’t laugh in my face or throw her drink at me. She just replied, “No.” I apologized for interrupting, forced a smile, and slunk back to my spot. I’m pretty sure I paid my tab and left as quickly as possible.

BUT…do I regret doing it? Not at all. I may have looked foolish, and I certainly gave the woman and her companion some fodder for giggles, but I am glad to this day that I didn’t pass up a chance to connect with someone, even though the someone wasn’t who I originally thought she was and the connection lasted about ten seconds. If I hadn’t gone over to her, I would still have that niggling sense of doubt. This is a small and silly example, but it’s one I need to remind myself of from time to time. Go for it!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

– apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain (https://marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-the-things-you-didnt-do/)

Engaging With Doubt

Growing up in a church with a strong liturgical tradition, I used to be annoyed by the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. As the congregation mumbled through call and response prayers, I was sure I could detect the same unthinking recitation in the voices around me that I was feeling myself. I enjoyed singing hymns because I would challenge myself to try to sing a different part of the SATB hymnal arrangements on every verse, but I rarely felt the message of the lyrics

Now I attend a church in which liturgy plays a very minor role in our Sunday service. This in spite of the fact that our church’s Reformed denomination supposedly follows a number of creeds (Wikipedia lists 22.) Curiously, I find that I miss those liturgical elements. Maybe it’s the comfort of familiarity I miss. Maybe it’s the link to the past provided by a traditional worship service. Maybe it’s simply that I’m not wild about the contemporary Christian praise songs that have pushed the old hymns aside.

Or maybe it’s that the doubts that often made me feel hypocritical when reciting creeds are not being given anything to push against. Even though it sometimes felt like I was coasting through creeds and prayers on autopilot, one of my quibbles with mouthing someone else’s words was that I didn’t always believe them. Ironically, the thing that most kept me engaged, whether I was consciously aware of being engaged or not, was doubt.

In the April 20, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, there is an interview with Nashville songwriter David Olney in which he says, “There’s a lot more doubt than faith that goes on with me, but I just can’t dump the whole thing. It’s much harder to do that than to accept it on some level and just bite my tongue in a church service when the Apostles’ Creed is recited.”

Rachel Held Evans says nearly the same thing in her book, Inspired: “There are days…when I mumble through the hymns and creeds at church because I’m not convinced that they say anything true.”

Cynicism, of which I have certainly been guilty, is not helpful. It is a kneejerk dismissal of whatever I’m hearing or reading. Doubt is more nuanced. It allows for the possibility that what I’m being asked to believe may be wrong, but it also admits that I might be the party who is wrong. Doubt is not afraid to ask questions. When I feel doubt, that is a signal that it’s time to pay attention. I need to let the question in. What’s more, I need to listen for the answer with an open mind, especially if it’s an answer I don’t expect or don’t want to hear.

Living in the Question

I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I spent a good deal of time as a child attending Sunday school, church services, vacation Bible school (now usually called by its hip initialism “VBS”), youth group, choir practice, and an assortment of church family nights, potlucks, caroling, etc. In college, I had a minor in religious studies. My present day job is as a worship arts coordinator in an RCA (Reformed Church of America) congregation. All of which to is to say the church has had a big role in my life.

So why is it that I still have so many doubts about not only the small niggling Biblical oddities and contradictions, but even about the most foundational aspects of faith? One thing I have learned for sure is that faith cannot be forced. I’ve tried and failed. It feels phony. It makes my brain hurt. My good friend Craig Ferguson (not the late night TV host but pastor of River of Life Church, an outreach of the UMC congregation in which I grew up) once told me he enjoys “living in the question.” It’s not a satisfactory answer, but I like it nonetheless. It implies that there is more to explore. It tells me doubt is not wrong, but rather an indicator that there is a reason to continue seeking.

I am a Type A personality. I like answers. Vagueness bothers me. Living in the question makes me uncomfortable. My ongoing effort to find answers leads me to dig deeper. It takes me into dusty corners, down hidden hallways, and often humbles me by forcing me to change my mind. By embracing doubt, my faith becomes fuller. Sometimes I feel afraid and discouraged. Then I remember that neither Job nor Jeremiah received satisfactory answers to their questions either. I’m in good company.