Existing in Uncertainty and Doubt

“We must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong. This dialectic relationship between conviction and doubt is characteristic of the highest types of courage.”
Rollo May

There is pleasurable existence in being certain. To be rid of doubt. 

“There was once a man who went into church and asked, ‘Can it be that my ardour has deceived me, that I have taken a wrong turning and managed things badly? Oh, if only I could be rid of this doubt and know for certain I shall come out victorious.’ A voice answered him. ‘And if you were certain, what would you do then? Act now as if you were certain and you will not be disappointed.'”

This little parable was told by Vincent van Gogh to his brother in 1878. Van Gogh, whose own crisis of self-actualization was life-long, imagined if only we could hold to these “thoughts and deeds” peace would follow.

Writer Annie Dillard suggested we build a protected space where we can meet our most adept consciousness, and thus, be certain. Even Rilke, who advised “live the questions” admits needing to feel at home in order to write, presumably a comfortable, known space.

Those who smooth the wrinkled space of doubt like a cloth under flat palms are really just wanting to solve the horrific state of uncertainty.

Is that what we should be doing?

Owen Normand's "Now and Then" 2019, oil on canvas.
Owen Normand, a Scottish artist of intense restraint, shows rather than tells this state of uncertainty. His figures – eyes closed, thinking, unavailable – exist in their own in-between. Now and Then, 2019. Available as a print.

There are some instances where certainty seems sublime and natural. I think of Jan (born James) Morris’ conviction related to her essential physical being. It is unequivocal:

I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.


To myself I had been woman all along, and I was not going to change the truth of me, only discard the falsity.

From Jan Morris’ Conundrum

The purity of knowledge as it pertained to herself and body was resolute and Morris’ arrival – or rather, departure – from the falsity of her body was perfect.1

But certainty does not always arrive thus.

Certainty itself is uncertain and it has many fittings. It can be something false we project to protect, or something we embrace for comfort. Of what are we certain? And of what, in doubt? And what does it mean to exist in uncertainty and doubt?

Rollo May, in his clear guide to existing as a creative being discusses the paradox of uncertainty and the courage it demands:

The seeming contradiction that we must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong. This dialectic relationship between conviction and doubt is characteristic of the highest types of courage, and gives the lie to the simplistic definitions that identify courage with mere growth.

People who claim to be absolutely convinced that their stand is the only right one are dangerous. Such conviction is the essence of not only dogmatism, but of its more destructive cousin, fanaticism. It blocks off the user from learning new truth, and it is a dead giveaway of the unconscious doubt.

From Rollo May’s The Courage to Create

May not only slips a toe in that closing door of certainty, he props it open. He even argues one’s commitment to a cause or belief is higher when we allow for doubt and is not a contradiction: “it presupposes a greater respect for truth, and awareness that truth always goes beyond anything said or done at any given moment.”

Owen Normand's "Stop Motion" 2019, oil on canvas.
Normand’s metaphoric use of black in these works, is it an abyss at the edge? No, black isn’t nothing, it’s everything. Like Malevich’s Black Square, Normand’s void is space into which you can expand. That is what we all need, not certainty, but space – nay permission – to be uncertain. Stop Motion, 2019.

“To every thesis there is an antithesis, and to this there is a synthesis.” continued May, illustrating so perfectly what sculptor Barbara Hepworth knew intrinsically and expressed fearlessly throughout her work.

It is the mystery that makes such loveliness and I want to project my feeling about it into sculpture – not words, not paint, nor sound; because it cannot be a complete thought unless it could have been done no other way, in no other material or any different size.

From Unit 1: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture’, ed. Herbert Read, 1934.

Hepworth’s sculptures, characterized by materials tucked around open space, or forms pierced with holes and fissures, left actual physical space for the unanswered, the unknown. At the same time we were to mentally enter her work, we might feel sheltered and held.

Is that what we feel in the gaze of scientific certainty?

“Science is not the only means to arrive at knowledge,” countered Alan Lightman, a physicist and human who has, for generations, poked holes in some of our most steadfast bodies of knowledge. Everything is changing, nothing is still, nothing is certain. So much knowledge pouring in, accelerated and relentless, inundated by the constant flux, powerless against change.

Is that why we cling to certainty?

Lightman thinks so:

Now isn’t enough. We want to go beyond the moment. We want to build systems and patterns and memories that connect moment to moment to eternity. We long to be part of the infinite.

From Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

If we step out of that infinite, we face an edge. What is it like to stand at the edge of knowledge?

For many, this is where faith comes in, formal religious faith or simply a structured set of beliefs.

I needed to place my faith in something… I wasn’t exactly a nonbeliever. Nor was I a believer. Where did that leave me? Anxious, fearful, lonely, resentful, depressed – troubled by a powerful and, some would say, deeply irreverent sense of futility.

From Dani Shapiro’s Devotion

Writer Dani Shapiro stands at this exact position, facing that edge, sorting through the muck of uncertainty, pulling up faith, religion, and memory for comfort.

What she ultimately found looked like this:

Something that was here before we got here and I will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousness are bound up in that greater consciousness … That was as as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in that direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this is what I felt. Something – rather than nothing.

From Dani Shapiro’s Devotion

Faith and religion give comfort as we stand at the edge of knowledge and confront not knowing. But neither are the answer to not knowing, merely a means to accept it.

What is it that we are afraid of not knowing?

Not knowing if our future self will do our current and past self justice. Not knowing if God exits. Or does not exist. If we are alone. Not knowing if our lives will mean something, anything. Not knowing when pain will come.

Owen Normand's "Sending Messages" 2019, oil on canvas.
Notice how quickly our mind spins stories, building a fabric of life from a single shot. In Sending Messages, the protagonist taps the pineapple like a Morse code telegraph. Is the pineapple real, or a kitschy flare to show hospitality? Is he a guest? Does he feel welcome? Sending Messages, 2019. Oil on canvas. Available as a print.

Not knowing what an artist intended with his work.

I feel deeply soothed by Lydia Davis’ (a short-short story writer of tremendous imagination) confrontation with Les Bluets, by Joan Mitchell.

It was what it was, shapes and colors, white and blue. Then I was told by Joan or someone else that it referred to the landscape here in Vétheuil, specifically to the cornflowers. Apparently I had not known before that an abstract painting could contain references to concrete, objective, identifiable subject matter. Two things happened at once: the painting abruptly went beyond itself, lost its isolation, acquired a relationship to fields, to flowers; and it changed from something I understood into something I did not understand, a mystery, a problem.


I like to understand things and tend to ask questions of myself or another person until there is nothing left that I do not understand. At the time, in the midst of a period when I was training myself so hard in another kind of representation and seeing more and more clearly into the subtler workings of my language, I was confronted with this experience of opacity.

From Lydia Davis’ Essays

When Davis fixes herself in this space – confronting art as an uncomfortable abstract of our unconscious reality – she begins to warm to it, even like it, need it.

If the lighter, scattered, or broken areas of blue referred to cornflowers, what did the blocks of darker blue refer to, and the opulent white?” Davis instantly assumes meaning in the piece, as we must from Davis. And yet… “Eventually I began to find answers to my questions, but they were not complete answers, and after a time I did not feel the need for complete answer because I saw that part of the force of the painting was that it continued to elude explanation.

From Lydia Davis’ Essays

I did not feel the need for complete answers.

When did you last feel exactly that? When did you let yourself feel like that?

If it is knowledge and certainty you seek, then seek all of it. Collect all the comingling contradicting bits. Let everything dance around, spill over and gush onto the floor and out the door. This endless fount of wonder, curiosity, and being that is true, false, everything and nothing all at once.

And then? And then… I have no idea what happens next.