In Defense of Doubt
A dear friend and fellow rural organizer called me a couple of weeks after the election and said:
“I feel like I’m not supposed to say this, but I feel lost. I’m not sure if anything we’re doing here is working against these enormous forces.”
Doubt is not a popular sentiment among organizers. At best, it’s shared in confidence like this, around the edges, in private. At worst, it’s used as a weapon against others in the form of vague public attacks, disguised as debate: “That shit they’re doing never works.”
But most often doubt is never mentioned at all. So few of the rooms I’ve shared with other organizers over the last 15 years have allowed doubt in. The moment it knocks on the door, our typical reflexes show up: gloss over it, assuage it, counter it. But whatever you do, move on.
It might be that we’ve been trained by funders and donors to be perpetually optimistic, to sell a sort of constant knowing and achieving in order to sustain ourselves. It might be that we know deep down that doubt is actually all around us, and we fear that letting it in at all would only welcome a storm; doubt might tear our whole house down. Or maybe we tell ourselves we don’t have time for it. The world is burning down around us. And if we stop to wonder whether what we’re up to works, we’ll lose ground.
And so our meetings continue. Our workplans are set. And we opt, as we always do, for perpetual motion.
My phone buzzed again this morning. A friend in the South now, wondering if we can talk about all this, about “what happened in November.” I get messages like this daily. The secret whispers of uncertainty. Doubt is knocking on our big old door. It wants in. We should let it.
“Growth lives in the disavowed places,” a teacher of mine said last week. It’s a wisdom I’ve been turned toward over and over again by my elders.
To borrow a phrase from the training tradition I come from: when confronted with an uncomfortable feeling, we can ignore it or we can ask, “What’s right here?” In this case, what’s right about doubt? What does doubt have to teach us?
Here’s a stab at answering that question:
- Doubt can free us up| I’ve never met an organizer who can’t stay busy. We are excellent at filling our time. Doubt gives us the incredible gift of helping us to ensure we’re using our time well. When we listen to it, it can guide us, toward a sounder strategy and toward our own calling within it. Listening to doubt, means we don’t have to do the same tired tactic we do every legislative session. It means we don’t have to keep maintaining an old institution that has outgrown its purpose. It means we don’t have to fill the role we no longer feel called to. Following doubt means we can be more available to what we and a given moment needs. In short, it can help us root our actions in choice, rather than obligation or convention — which for a group of folks fighting for freedom, is no small thing.
- Doubt can be a sign that there’s something for us to learn| The times the groups I have been in have been most doubtful are after large pushes, big groundswells of work. Doubt creeps in when we’re coming down from the high. When we’re searching for what’s next. In fear of losing ourselves or what we’ve built, we careen ahead, trying to replicate the thing we just did, or else find the next bright shiny way. What doubt is saying in these moments, if we listen to it is: “Did that thing you just did work?” Or said more generously, “What did you just learn?” Doubt begs us for deeper reflection. And can be an invitation to make more meaning of what we’ve just done.
- Doubt can be a sign that a different pace or direction is needed| Doubt is one of the best tools we have for diagnosing our groups. When it shows up, it’s often a sign that other things might be up too: confusion, tiredness, a longing for appreciation, a need for more freedom or choices. Doubt can be be a sign that slowing down, and tending, is actually the most necessary work of our group for a time. That going deeper, rather than father, is our next best move.
This isn’t easy work. And I don’t mean to suggest that doubt is always the guest we should open ourselves to. Rather, in an organizing culture that wards off this visitor at all costs, well, doubt is a companion we should at least get to know. Here’s are a few ways that might look:
- Make exploring the things you feel doubtful about a part of your groups’ workplan. “Over the next 6 months, we want to better understand...”
- Schedule meetings with your team or time with yourself that is just for reflection, and take planning off the table.
- Run experiments. Try out living into a few different futures before embodying one entirely.
- Say no to things that don’t call you, so you can have more room for finding things that do. Name this intention to a friend.
- Talk about it. Bring doubt into the room and invite others to do the same: “What do you feel uncertain about?”
Doubt is here. It’s on our stoops. It would do better with a spot on your couch, and a warm cup of coffee.