People say doubt does all sorts of things. It holds us back. It even “plagues” us. I’ve had a lot of contact with the creature, and I’m still not sure about it. Sometimes doubt is my best friend. Other times it’s hurt me. Self-doubt — all doubt — leads to questioning reality and I think that’s often good.
These days we’re not supposed to doubt. There are products in the market to help us overcome doubt. Pillows for our sofas and beds, wall decals, books, daily emails and post on Facebook with “affirmations” to motivate us through self-doubt. The first time I ever heard of affirmations (remember, I don’t watch TV) my “friend” Lana and I were hiking. I was talking about writing and she said, “You doubt yourself. You need to give yourself affirmations every day.”
“What’s an ‘affirmation’?”
“Nice things you tell yourself about yourself, positive self-talk.”
“I’m improving every day.”
I thought that sounded like a line from the Return of the Pink Panther, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”
I thought about this even though it seemed paradoxical. If you tell yourself you’re improving every day, what shit hole were you in? I even told myself I thought too much, but I saw that was negative self-talk. “Damn,” I thought. “Where do I start?”
I started with Goethe and his advice to his secretary, Eckermann, became my companion through some very sketchy times. I don’t think it’s an “affirmation.” I think it’s just good advice and advice I needed then — and now. Doubt is often the result of not knowing what to do, which choice to take, which way to go. Goethe’s words resolve the questions we meet at every one of life’s intersections, big and small.
“Hold your powers together for something good. Let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Still, I knew (know) that’s not an “affirmation” as Lana meant it. It doesn’t tell me how great I am or what wonderful things will come to me if I only project my desires into the universe and believe that they will “manifest”. I don’t want to live in such a universe. I have no doubt about that.
I think life is puzzling by its very nature, and difficult. I think the expectation that “everything will work out and I will be happy” is false. Good people every where face immense challenges that they did not have any part in causing and no “affirmation” is going to change that.
Back in high school I read Also Sprach Zarathustra mostly because Nietzsche had said, “God is dead,” and I wanted to argue with him. What I found in that book has stayed with me all my life. When Zarathustra comes down from the mountain full of wisdom and beautiful words, the villagers are spellbound. They go to him with their complaints and problems, and Zarathustra says,
“You tell me life is hard to bear, but were it otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?” Friedrich Nietzsche
I was reading this book sitting on the sofa in the living room of my family’s house. My dad was on the other end of the sofa. I was, in fact, at that moment “baby”sitting my dad. Someone needed to be with him all the time in case something happened, he had a back spasm and slid/fell off the sofa, for example. His MS had gotten him to the point where he was using a walker, and he was no longer able to get up and use the toilet. If he needed to pee, he had a urinal. I was there to help him with that, too. So, there I was, sitting on the end of the sofa reading Nietzsche while dad was watching TV. I was thinking about Nietzsche’s words and how beautiful they were and how true and how they made the situation I was in at that moment bearable, acceptable and even lovely in the sense that things can be no other way than they are.
I read it to my dad.
He liked it.
Stoics don’t need no stinkin’ affirmations and self-doubt is OK.
But I’m also a “child” of the 70s and I truly believe…