Do you remember the SNL character Debbie Downer? She seemed to find the negative in almost any situation. The skits were hilarious because they were a caricature, an exaggerated view of how some people seem to be with their doubts.
I once knew a guy whose family, behind his back, referred to him as "Buzz Kill." He was a loving and generous man, but bring up a significant topic about health or money or the goodness of people and he became Debbie Downer. Grumpy Gus is another way to describe him, and he seemed to relish that reputation. Thankfully, still kind and generous.
I used to be able to relate to that view of life. I started out life as one of the chief skeptics. I doubted and doubted until I believed my own doubt. The operative words there are "my doubt." Pick a topic. I doubted it. Worse, I was very vocal and complaining about it. "Wait and see" seemed to be the way I went about life. I wouldn't be surprised if my family labeled me "Buzz Kill" behind my back at some point.
In ancient Greece, the two main schools of skepticism both thought we should just hold off on judgment because it would make us feel better in our minds. It would give us "ataraxia" or "a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety; tranquility." (see dictionary.com)
Then something changed in my brain, and I can't really tell you when. Skepticism did not give me ataraxia or any other type of mental calmness or happiness. I began to think that life was an experiment. I wondered and wondered about all kinds of things. Like Alice, I became "curiouser and curiouser." (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 2)
Then my little brain wanted to know about more impactful things. People told me these things so I wondered.
Man, those questions led me on the most difficult, yet satisfying, ride of my life... and I'm still on it. But we'll discuss those things another time.
The point I want to consider today is skepticism in all of us, that little voice of doubt that is the IMMEDIATE response when we hear something we've never heard before. It doesn't matter what it is, whether it's medical or scientific or spiritual or methods to improve society. We hear things that don't fit with our experience and our very first gut reaction is often to doubt.
If you're in that club, I'm right there with you, maybe even the president of that club. I still doubt, because I don't want to be viewed as a schmuck. And that fear will get you absolutely nowhere.
Growing up with doubts, I also grew up with a serious fear of being laughed at or ridiculed. What if my opinion isn't believed by everyone else? What if they scoff at me for my opinions? What if... what if... what if...
That freakin' little internal voice of fear is the biggest enemy of a happy life!
Liz Ryan wrote some ideas for Forbes about why smart people doubt themselves. I loved her intro paragraphs where she said:
I have been interviewing people for over 30 years and I've noticed one startling thing. The smarter someone is -- in the sense of being awake and aware, attuned to their surroundings and curious about the wider world -- the more humble they tend to be.
One reason so many smart and talented people doubt themselves is that they know the world is vast and their own knowledge is limited.
They may have terrific experience and incredible judgment, but they also know that they'll never know everything there is to know, even about their favorite subjects.
Less-capable, less-curious people don't doubt themselves a bit. They'll tell an interviewer "I am an expert in every single aspect of this topic." They aren't exaggerating -- they believe it.
That kind of bravado is cute in a small child. In an adult, it's alarming.
It seems to be a human trait to have questions. But it seems to be a superhuman trait, possibly even divine, to overcome doubts in a humble, yet positive way. That leads to the main point I want to make about skepticism.
My observation tells me that there seem to be two major types of skeptics:
Maybe there are other subcategories, but I'm going to just run with these two major divisions for this discussion. I'm also going to run with the idea that the second type is the wiser type.
You see, I went to medical school and we were wisely taught to not put too much credence in research where there was just one subject. It took groups of subjects to start to see patterns that became more useful. A "study of one" might be correct, but it had a very high risk of being inaccurate.
I believe even if we start as the first major type of skeptic above (which was my starting place), we can end up at the second (where I still live) if we will just keep our eyes, ears, and mind open.
But there's even a faster way.
What if we actually EXPERIMENT? What if we get an idea, doubt it, create a way to possibly test it, and then come to whatever conclusion to which the results lead us?
I don't mean the scientific method that can only be observed by eyes, ears, instruments, and such. I also mean what we "feel in our hearts" so to speak. There are aspects of life that are so vitally important to being human, but can't readily be measured via any scientific method. Just ask anyone who has ever been in love.
Skepticism and doubt are often based on fear, and very often completely irrational fear. Huffpost reported that 85 percent of what we worry about never happens. If that's true, then why do we let our irrational fears have such prominent places in our lives?
I believe (see there, no longer skeptical and doubting) that there are simple ways to eliminate skepticism and doubt and it's in understanding the other end of the spectrum.
Skepticism and doubt have their opposites and these two characters don't seem to be able to be in the same room at the same time as skepticism and doubt. These two opposites are Faith and Belief. Thankfully some people seem wired for faith and belief, but that's not where I started out life, and possibly not where you live either.
The Huffpost article included reference to the author's book that contained "20 proven tools" to neuroplastically rewire your brain. They might be helpful. But I have an extremely simple suggestion that comes from a very wise man in ancient history. His name was Alma and he taught this idea about 74 B.C. It's amazingly valuable still today.
Here's the backstory. The poor laborers of the time had built a synagogue in which to worship God. Then the wealthier class wanted the benefits of the synagogue themselves, and without so much as a "thank you" or pat on the back, basically ran the builders off because they were poor. So these laborers came to wise Alma to ask his advice. The actual historical record says:
"And they came unto Alma; and the one who was the foremost among them said unto him: Behold, what shall these my brethren do, for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our exceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?"
What Alma told them was one of the greatest pieces of advice I've ever read about overcoming skepticism and doubt, and it applies to all kinds of questions, even though the specific question those people had was about where to worship their God.
First Alma taught them that to worship God required no building at all. He also taught them they should worship God always, and not "only once in a week."
Then he told them:
"... it is well that ye are cast out... that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom."
Wow, that's starting to sound like what Liz Ryan said about her 30 years of interviewing smart people. "The smarter someone is... the more humble they tend to be."
So now that these people were humbled, even though it was kind of forced on them, they were in a great position to learn wisdom, and here's the lesson from Alma. It was specifically about Faith and Belief (the opposite of depressing and soul-killing Skepticism and Doubt).
"Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe."
Don't we all know people who always insist on seeing a study or a survey or "something on paper" before they will believe anything? Alma then pointed out what should have been obvious:
"Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it."
He went on to say:
"And now as I said concerning -- faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if he have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true."
That last part is critically important. It's best to have faith in, and hope for, things which are TRUE. So now he teaches them the method by which to discover what is true.
"Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words."
Then he goes on to compare the word to a seed. These people understood that analogy because they were workers and either lived or died by their agriculture. He used this comparison because it was useful for understanding things that, even today, can't be measured by scientific method.
Faith and belief are measured best within ourselves, in our hearts and minds. Here's the last couple of pieces of the wisdom Alma taught. As you read, it may be helpful in your mind to exchange the word "seed" with the word "idea."
"Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.
And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.
Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?
Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good."
He ended by reminding them that even if a good seed, or idea, starts to grow and shows you it's a good idea, you must still nourish seeds to become trees, and care for them so they don't die in the early part of the experiment:
"But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life."
You can read the whole account here if you'd like.
The Bible adds its own wisdom to these ideas, but pay special attention to the caveats.
"If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.
A double minded man is unstable in all his ways."
Don't these suggestions from Alma and James make things simple? If we can only "desire to believe" something is true, enough that we will consider the the idea, experiment with it in our lives, mull it over so to speak... then we will know if the idea grows and enlarges us or whether it is soul-killing and should be cast out.
And if we will consider the idea of a God who loves every one of us enough to answer our questions, like He did and does with mine, then we can gain any wisdom we want by asking God for that wisdom. But make sure you ask in faith, with a belief that you'll receive... or you won't receive anything. And if you doubt the idea of God, I strongly suggest you apply the outlined experiment to that very question first.
I once knew of a very tough, leather-clad biker in Australia who did this very experiment. After being taught about the existence of God, he decided to ask. Some would call it prayer. His words were short, but full of faith, nothing wavering. His actual words were (paraphrased) something like this:
God. I've been told you exist and that you love me.
I want to know if what I've been told is true or not.
But he ended with this, and these are his exact words:
"AND PUT A HURRY ON IT!"
Because of his sincerity of heart and the faith with which he delivered his words, He DID receive wisdom that very night. God gave him the wisdom asked for, and He definitely put a hurry on it. This good man's life was upwardly altered from that moment on. He then knew where he could go to gain wisdom about the other 400 gazillion questions he had rattling around in his head.
In writing this post, I suggested to my wife that a lot of people won't ever follow these suggestions because of not only skepticism and doubt, but especially because of FEAR. I suggested they would fear that God would not answer them in a way they could understand that it would be from Him.
She had another thought. She suggested many people won't follow these suggestions, not because they fear a non-response, but rather they fear God WILL answer their request for wisdom, just like with our biker friend. Once they know God's wisdom, then it's likely they'll have to change in some way, to up their game, so to speak.
Oh, the wisdom of my wife. I have lived that very fear. I'm as imperfect as the next person on this planet, maybe more so, but I'm slowly learning to trust God's wisdom as He drizzles it on me from time to time, with the occasional downpour.
My promise is that if you'll run with these ideas, God WILL answer your questions with His wisdom, and especially His love which is without limits. Whether your answers come in a drizzle or a downpour is up to you and your willingness to act in faith.
And ask God to put a hurry on it. There's no time to lose.