THE DOUBTING FOLLY
BY: GEORGE LINCOLN WALTON, M.D.
CONSULTING NEUROLOGIST TO THE MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL
THE DOUBTING FOLLY
I needed sorrow; others there may be who need faith, or joy--or doubt--
King Skule. Doubt as well?
Ay; but then must the doubter be strong and sound.
King Skule. And whom call you the unsound doubter?
He who doubts of his own doubt.
King Skule (slowly). That methinks were death.
Jatgeir. 'T is worse; 't is neither day nor night.
King Skule (quickly, as if shaking off his thoughts). Where are my weapons? I will fight and act, not think.
--IBSEN: The Pretenders, Act iv.
A man once told me that he rarely passed another man in the street without wondering if he had not said or done something rude or impolite. He knew very well that he had not, but the more he wondered about it, the more doubtful he became, until the impulse to settle the question became so overwhelming that he would retrace his steps and try to find out if he had. He asked if nux vomica would help this trouble! I told him he needed mental training.
"I have tried that," he answered. "I keep saying to myself, 'I will not think of it,' but it is no use; my head becomes hot, my sight blurred, my thoughts confused, and the only relief I find is to settle the question."
I tried to point out the direction in which he was tending, and told him he must remind himself that even if he had accosted another improperly, it was a trifling matter compared to the injury to himself of giving way to this compulsion; moreover, the impression he would make upon the other by going back would be even worse than that of having so accosted him; and, finally, he must dwell upon the probability that he had not offended the man, instead of the possibility that he had. Having pursued this line of thought, he must force himself to think of something else until the besetting impulse was obliterated. I suggested that if a baseball player should become incapacitated for the game, he would not lessen his disappointment by reiterating, "I will not think of baseball," but if he persistently turned his thoughts and his practice to billiards he might in time forget baseball.
"I never played baseball," he replied, "and don't even know the rules."
This represents an extreme case of "doubting folly" a case in which the victim could no longer concentrate his thoughts on the simplest proposition outside the narrow circle to which his doubts had restricted him.
If we once allow ourselves to wonder whether we have turned off the water, enclosed the check, or mailed the letter, it is but a step to an uncomfortable frame of mind which can be relieved only by investigating the matter. This compulsion once acceded to, it becomes more and more easy to succumb. The next step is to blur, by constant repetition, the mental image of the act. In extreme cases the doubter, after turning the gas on and off a dozen times, is finally in doubt whether he can trust his own senses. A certain officer in a bank never succeeded in reaching home after closing hours without returning to try the door of the bank. Upon finding it locked, he would unlock it and disappear within, to open the vault, inspect the securities, and lock them up again. I once saw a victim of this form of doubt spend at least ten minutes in writing a check, and ten minutes more inspecting it, and, after all, he had spelled his own name wrong!
Constant supervision only impairs acts which should have become automatic. We have all heard of the centipede who could no longer proceed upon his journey when it occurred to him to question which foot he should next advance.
To other doubts are often added the doubt of one's own mental balance; but it is a long step from these faulty habits of mind to real mental unbalance, which involves an inability to plan and carry out a line of conduct consistent with one's station.
It took a young man at least fifteen minutes, in my presence, to button his waistcoat. He felt the lower button to reassure himself, then proceeded to the next. He then returned to the lower one, either distrusting his previous observation, or fearing it had become unbuttoned. He then held the lower two with one hand while he buttoned the third with the other. When this point was reached he called his sight to the aid of his feeling, and glued his eyes to the lower while he buttoned the upper, unbuttoning many meantime, to assure himself that he had buttoned them. This young man said he would sometimes stop on his way to the store in doubt whether he was on the right street, a doubt not quieted either by reading the sign or by asking a stranger, because the doubt would obtrude itself whether he could trust his sight and his hearing, indeed, whether he was really there or dreaming. Even this victim of extreme doubting folly conducted his business successfully so long as I knew him, and so comported himself in general as to attract no further comment than that he was "fussy."
These doubts lead to chronic indecision. How often, in deciding which of two tasks to take up, we waste the time which would have sufficed for the accomplishment of one, if not both.
The doubt and the indecision result directly from over-conscientiousness. It is because of an undue anxiety to do the right thing, even in trivial matters, that the doubter ponders indefinitely over the proper sequence of two equally important (or unimportant) tasks. In the majority of instances it is the right thing for him to pounce upon either. If he pounces upon the wrong one, and completes it without misgiving, he has at least accomplished something in the way of mental training. The chances are, moreover, that the harm done by doing the wrong thing first was not to be compared to the harm of giving way to his doubt, and either drifting into a state of ineffective revery or fretting himself into a frenzy of anxious uncertainty.
A gentleman once told me that after mailing a letter he would often linger about the box until the postman arrived, and ask permission to inspect his letter, ostensibly to see if he had put on the stamp, but in fact to reassure himself that he had really mailed the missive, although he knew perfectly well that he had done so. The life of the chronic doubter is full of these small deceits, though in most matters such persons are exceptionally conscientious.
This form of over-solicitude is peculiarly liable to attack those in whose hands are important affairs affecting the finances, the lives, or the health of others. I have known more than one case of the abandonment of a chosen occupation on account of the constant anxiety entailed by doubts of this nature. Nor are these doubts limited to the question whether one has done or left undone some particular act. An equally insistent doubt is that regarding one's general fitness for the undertaking. "The doubter may spend upon this question more time than it would take to acquire the needed facility and experience".
Some one has said there are two things that no one should worry about: first, the thing that can't be helped; second, the thing that can. This is peculiarly true of the former.
Reflection upon the past is wise; solicitude concerning it is an anachronism. Suppose one has accepted a certain position and finds himself in doubt of his fitness for that position. Nothing can be more important than for him to decide upon his next line of conduct. Shall he resign or continue? Is he fit for the position, or, if not, can he acquire the fitness without detriment to the office? These are legitimate doubts. But the doubter who finds himself in this predicament adds to these legitimate doubts the question, "Ought I to have accepted the office?" This is the doubt he must learn to eliminate. He must remind himself that he has accepted the position, whether rightly or wrongly, and that the acceptance is ancient history. The question what shall he do next is sufficiently weighty to occupy all his attention without loading his mind with anxious doubts regarding the irrevocable past.
But, what if, in fact, the doubter has made a mistake? How shall he free himself of the worry? By reminding himself that others have made mistakes, why should not he, and that it is somewhat egotistic on his part to insist that, whatever others may do, he must do everything right. If this line of reasoning fails to console him, let him think of the greater mistakes he might have made. A financial magnate was once asked how he succeeded in keeping his mind free from worry. He replied, by contemplating the two worst things that could happen to him: losing all his property and going to jail. He had learned the lesson that one thought can be driven out only by another.
With regard to immediate doubts. If the over-scrupulous business or professional man, worn out after an exacting day's work, will stop and reflect, he will realize that much of his exhaustion is due to his having filled the day with such doubts as whether he is doing the wrong thing, or the right thing at the wrong time, whether he or someone else will miss an appointment or fail to meet obligations, and whether he or his assistants may make blunders.
Let him resolve some morning that he will proceed that day from task to task without allowing such thoughts to intrude. If he does so he will find that he has succeeded in his work at least as well as usual, and that he is comparatively fresh in the evening.
Why not try this every day?
So far we have only considered the most obvious and simple among the evidences of doubting folly. A still more obstinate tendency of the doubter is the insistent habit interminably to argue over the simplest proposition, particularly regarding matters pertaining to the health, comfort, and life of the individual himself. A certain patient, of this type, attempts to describe to his physician a peculiar, hitherto undescribed, and even now indescribable sensation "through his right lung." He traces this sensation to what he believes to have been the absorption of a poison some years ago.
His line of reasoning is somewhat as follows:
Conclusion: He is suffering from poison. In support of this proposition he will spend hours with anyone who will listen. The physician who allows himself to be drawn into the controversy speedily finds himself, instead of giving advice to listening ears, involved in a battle of wits in which he is quite likely to come off second best. He assures the patient, for example, that, as far as scientific methods can establish the fact, the lung is sound.
- The drug was a poison.
- If he absorbed it he must have been poisoned.
- If he was poisoned then, he is poisoned now.
- There is no proof that such a poison cannot produce such a sensation.
- He has the sensation.
"But has science established everything? And if it had, is such negative evidence to be weighed against the positive evidence of the sensation in my lung?"
"But the sensation may not be in your lung."
"Can you prove that it is not in my lung?"
On being urged to direct his attention to some other part of his body, he promptly inquires,
"How can I direct my thoughts elsewhere, when the sensation is there to occupy my attention?" Obviously he can not without changing his mental attitude, so folly scores again.
He is assured that if the poison had been absorbed the effects would have passed away long before this time.
"But do the effects of poison always pass away? And can you prove that they have passed away in my case? Is not the sensation positive evidence, since you have allowed that you cannot prove that the sensation does not come from the poison?"
Folly scores again, but the victory is an empty one. The vicious circle continues: Attention magnifies sensation--sensation produces fear...fear increases attention; and throughout runs the insistent thought that his sensations shall conform to his ideal.
If the discussion of such comparatively tangible matters can occupy a large part of one's attention, imagine the result of the insistent desire, on the part of the doubter, to solve such problems as "What is thought?", "What is existence?"
If the windings of this intellectual labyrinth have not too far involved us, we have only to recognize the futility of such arguments, and exercise our will-power in the right direction. If we can bring ourselves to take the initiative, it is as easy to step out of the vicious circle, as for the squirrel to leave his wheel. But unless we grasp the logic of the situation, and take this initiative, no amount of abuse, persuasion, or ridicule will effect our freedom.
So far we have only considered the most obvious and simple evidences of doubting folly. A still more obstinate tendency of the doubter is the insistent habit of interminably arguing over the simplest things, particularly those matters pertaining to the health, comfort, and life of the individual himself.
A certain patient, of this type, attempts to describe to his physician a peculiar, previously undescribed, and even at the moment, indescribable sensation "through his right lung." He traces this sensation to what he believes to have been the absorption of a poison some years ago.
A word may be in place regarding the anthropological status of the doubting folly and allied mental states. Men of genius have suffered from them all. A long list may be found in Lombroso's "The Man Of Genius". Under folie du doute we find, for example, Tolstoi, Manzoni, Flaubert and Amiel.
Lombroso [Cesare Lombroso 1835-1909, Italian criminologist] regards genius as degenerative, and places among the signs of degeneration, deviations from the average normal, whether physical or mental. This plan has been quite generally followed. The nomenclature seems to me unfortunate and hardly justified by the facts. I can think of no more potent objection to such inclusive use of the term degenerate, than the fact that Lombroso includes, under the signs of degeneration, the enormous development of the cerebral speech-area in the case of an accomplished orator. If such evolutional spurts are to be deemed degenerative, the fate of the four-leaved clover is sealed.
The application of the term "degeneration" may be, and should be, it seems to me, limited to the signs, whether physical or mental, which indicate an obviously downward tendency. I have elsewhere suggested, and the suggestionhas already found some acceptance, that when the variation is not definitely downward, deviation and deviate be substituted for the unnecessarily opprobrious and often inappropriate terms, degeneration and degenerate.
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SOME SYNONYMS FOR DOUBT: UNCERTAINTY, INDECISION, HESITANCY, CONFUSION
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