In almost any decision we make or path we follow, we will question it. Is this the right career for me? Is she the one? Is this religion really true? Should I have ordered the pasta instead? From the trivial to the foundational, all of our choices come under scrutiny.
Doubt is questioning if the path we are on is correct. Did I miss my turn? Did I put 2 or 3 scoops in the coffee maker? Is the Bible true? We cannot escape doubt if we are thinking creatures, but doubt is not always bad. It can come and go quickly, often resolving itself without too much effort. We see the next landmark and we know we are on the right road.
Uncertainty¹ is doubt between two or more options. Do I go to college or enlist in the Army? Paper or plastic? Catholic or Presbyterian? Doubt can lead to uncertainty, and that is where doubt can become unsettling. They both exist on the same continuum which may be why some people react with fear or hostility toward doubt — they understand where it can lead. There is a significant difference between, “I’m not sure I’m right for this position,” and, “Maybe I should look for a different job.”
Doubt can be an insulator. We can hold a bit of skepticism toward something while still adhering to it. It is a way for us to not totally submit. This can be healthy or it can hinder our growth and progress, depending on what we are holding doubt toward.
Doubt can also prod us to learn more. If we have doubts about something, one way to attempt to resolve those doubts is to investigate it further. We may read more about our religion. We might have deeper conversations with our fiancé.
Uncertainty is often disruptive. While we can doubt and not change, uncertainty holds with it the idea that a choice will have to be made. One of these options we are clinging to will have to be abandoned. Doubts can linger; uncertainties pursue us.
What is the turning point between doubt and uncertainty? It is not necessarily the presence of another option. We all know there is more than one religion in the world. We know there are multiple jobs. Yet we seem capable of doubting without contemplating a change.
We reach uncertainty when a doubt has shown itself unresolvable. When it doesn’t fade back to where it came. When a doubt becomes a belief that lies at odds with the thing we are doubting, we have made a turn toward uncertainty. When another option enters the picture as a possible alternative, uncertainty has taken root.
Doubt and uncertainty, considered by themselves, are neutral. Only when applied to certain beliefs do we begin to assign moral weight to them. Being aware of them, and knowing how to support or discourage their development in ourselves and others are powerful skills. From salesmen to therapists, doubt and uncertainty are core ideas to be used and exploited, either for the client’s good or for the good of the one doing the exploiting, in which case it may truly be exploitation.
¹ These definitions of doubt and uncertainty are my own, though they are certainly not unique to me. Other definitions and uses can be found and in many contexts, the two are synonymous.