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When in doubt...

imago dei

Duke is a competitive environment where success is measured in tangible results and where high ambitions and finite opportunities produce rivalry. We have been taught our whole lives that achievement matters greatly. And many have, understandably, come to believe that their self-worth depends on achievement, whether academic, social or professional. That pressure to excel in all things, and without displaying great effort, breeds doubt.

Doubting starts early at Duke. Freshmen wonder whether they belong here, whether they’re smart enough, cool enough, whether their first-semester friendships will persist or will have just been placeholders until rush shakes out. Sophomores ponder major declaration, unsure about the return-on-investment of the program they must soon select and the options it might open or close.

And the doubts just increase as we progress. Juniors worry about the internship search, seeking the perfect job to set them up for life yet afraid of whether they might be falling behind when compared to their peers’ success. Seniors are uneasy about graduation and beyond, from career plans or graduate school to just finishing that thesis on time.

But we also have deeper doubts. Am I the person I thought I was in high school? Is my life coming together as I always dreamed it would? Have I gotten the “life bearings” that my high school teachers said mark the real purpose of college? Or am I lost—full of doubt—and afraid to tell anyone?

These doubts are exacerbated by the ambient culture at Duke. Conventions are attacked. Confidence is deflated. Conformity is encouraged. More gravely, the University as an institution, which seems daunting and opaque, is entirely agnostic to values and beliefs.

From Duke, we learn that we can define the content of right and wrong only subjectively, for ourselves, and, once defined, that we must keep those values to ourselves lest we offend others. We also learn in many classes that the only reliable—or legitimate—truths are empirical truths, ones that can be verified with data.

And so when we ask ourselves the Life Questions—what do I believe, what can I believe in a legitimate way, am I more than my biological composition—we are left to our own devices. We can try to dismiss or ignore those questions, even suppress them. But they keep resurfacing, often at the most inopportune times.

Perhaps not the most widely read book on campus, the Book of Psalms, though written thousands of years ago, has an impressive way of illuminating the timeless depth and significance of human experience. Consider Psalm 6, which describes the sentiments of an overcommitted, under-rested Duke student: “I am exhausted with my groaning; / every night I drench my pillow with tears; / I bedew my bed with weeping.” Or Psalm 22, which echoes the cries of one whose life plan has come crashing down through a failed orgo test, a job rejection, a breakup or an eight-lateral kickoff return by the opponent on the last play of the game: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? / You are far from plea and the cry of my distress / O my God, I call by day and you give no reply; / I call by night and I find no peace.”

How do we rise from the depths of doubt? By daring to believe, to believe in the transcendent as a reality as accessible and real as the reality of the laboratory. Those same Psalms tell us that one who believes is “like a tree that is planted / beside the flowing waters, / that yields its fruit in due season, / and whose leaves shall never fade.” And Psalm 84: “They are happy, whose strength is in you, / in whose hearts are the roads to Zion. / As they go through the Bitter Valley / they make it a place of springs, / the autumn rain covers it with blessings.”

The Psalms descend into the deepest abyss of the darkest human experiences—the pain of loss, suffering and loneliness. But they also lead us out of that abyss to the wellsprings of unending nourishment from the truth, beauty and goodness of the Absolute.

Many skeptics might say I am suggesting only a hallucinogenic drug, an addictive painkiller that reflects no reality whatsoever and operates only to numb one from the hard truth of empiricism. For now, I put aside the powerful philosophical rebuttals to that skepticism and invite your personal experience to be the judge: is your love for your family real or illusory? Is the beauty that you see in nature genuine or imagined? Is the joy that you feel when you do something truly for the sake of another authentic or phony? Are you hallucinating when you feel, deep down in your conscience, that nagging pull for what is true and good?

Generations of both the sophisticated and the simple have answered those questions by assenting to the reality of a transcendent and personal God. People in all cultures in all times have found that their lives have been immeasurably enriched and that their tribulations have become manageable, indeed meaningful, when they answer favorably to the call of their hearts. Saint Augustine captured that human phenomenon and philosophical truth best when he wrote in the Confessions a summary of his own tumultuous, doubt-ridden spiritual journey: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Believing, hoping and loving are called “theological” virtues because they lead us to, and increase our participation in, the goodness that is God. Cultivating those virtues will not eliminate the challenges and trials that we will face for the rest of our lives. But those virtues will allow us to see ourselves as we really are—the imago Dei—and, as a result, to overcome our challenges by keeping our eyes fixed on what durably matters. When in doubt, dare to believe, dare to hope, dare to love. The "Bitter Valley" will become a place of springs, and the autumn rain will cover it with blessings.

William Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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