Doubt is Helpful…Certainty is Dangerous

We have a tendency to look suspiciously at ourselves or others who move slowly, with caution or only after checking and rechecking all the possibilities. Doubt, one might think, is a sign of weakness or fear.

At lunch recently, one of my Rabun County heroes, Pierce Cline, came to Grapes and Beans with several handwritten thoughts and phrases he wanted us to discuss.  One was the wisdom or folly of these six words: “Doubt is healthy. Certainty is dangerous.”

Pierce decided at age 60 to climb the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine.  He did not have much doubt but that he could accomplish this remarkable objective. He planned to hike the entire 2,178 miles in sections.  He would do this over a number of years.  Along the way, he would pass through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Along the way Pierce learned over and over again that he was really rich. “On the trail I have learned that everything I truly need I can carry on my back.”

Piece had hiked all over the world for decades with a group of close friends which explains why he was quite certain that in time he would be successful  in accomplishing his remarkable goal.  Just a bit of doubt crept into the picture when he needed cardiac bypass surgery several years later. That derailed him for a year, but then he returned to the trail and he accomplished his goal.

For a long while now when thinking about myself or another person, the phrase “sometimes wrong but never in doubt” has basically had negative connotations to me. Not always, but usually.

Perhaps, in parallel with the words in Ecclesiastes, we might suggest that there is a time for doubt and a time for putting aside one’s doubts.  There is a time for certainty and a time to make decisions slowly.

Some examples of certainty carried to dangerous and evil extremes are the lives of Adolf Hitler, Mao, Joseph Stalin, and members of “the family” in Washington. If you haven’t read the book, “The Family” I recommend it highly.

So life presents us with this very difficult challenge: while it is important to have in mind what we want to accomplish, what we believe in and what we think is right, at the same time we must always be aware of the fact that we may need to tweak our perception of the truth and of our best course of action. Who ever, ever, ever said that life was going to be easy?