Doubt is Helpful – Certainty is Dangerous

Doubt is Helpful

Certainty is Dangerous

Bob Hatcher

November 12, 2011

 Doubt is helpful: TRUE or FALSE?

Certainty is dangerous: TRUE or FALSE?

Perhaps the best answer is that both statements can be either true or false.

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 helpful. 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, Virginia, 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.”

Prior to climbing the Appalachian trail Piece had hiked all over the world for decades with a group of close friends.  This in part explains why he was fairly certain that in time he would be successful in accomplishing his remarkable new 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 cautiously to the trail and he accomplished his goal.

For a long while now the phrase “sometimes wrong but never in doubt” has had primarily negative connotations to me. But not always.

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 what is the best course of action to follow.

Who ever, ever, ever said that life was going to be easy? 

Robert A. Hatcher MD, MPH
Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia