- The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. [Sylvia Plath, Letter, June-July 1953.]
Sometimes we can be so frozen by doubt or fear that we cannot act: maybe we are unable to ask the girl out or sign up for the difficult class or begin a new venture. We can overcome doubt by acting in the face of uncertainty, that is, by acting with Faith.
Then, if we have acted forcefully and courageously, yet retained the humility of productive doubt, we can evaluate whether we have acted wisely. Overcoming doubt does not mean that we have eliminated all doubt: that is self-delusion. It means that that we have acted in spite of our doubts, or fears.
If our actions have created a better result than we expected, then we can use that new information to bolster our confidence and move forward again. If our actions have not worked out, then we can re-evaluate and begin again.
This is distinguished from merely proclaiming a thing to be true. Some people can talk themselves into believing anything. Some people seem to crave the elimination of uncertainty. They have overcome doubt, in a sense, and may even feel better but usually this is not a responsible way to live. Sooner or later, reality will exact its price.
For both Humanists and theists, overcoming doubt can be emotionally uplifting. In the short run, absolute certainty can even motivate some people to move forward. But in the long run, unless we ground ourselves firmly in reality and remain willing to change our minds in response to new information, we cannot obtain the full power that comes from overcoming doubt in a responsible way.
Film and Stage
- Finding Nemo, about how we find our way to knowing, sometimes by forgetting what we think are our limitations, thereby navigating through life’s often treacherous waters
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
When despair overcomes us or doubt plagues us, a strong community may lift us up. Perhaps that is why top works that illustrate the value of overcoming doubt are symphonies.
Through its first three movements, Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 , TH 29 (1888), sounds like a symphony of powerlessness and despair. On the contrary, it is a journey from dark to light. Be patient: you will hear this in the final movement. Ormandy in 1959, Mravinsky in 1960, Bernstein in 1960, Dorati in 1962, Markevitch in 1966, Muti in 1979, Jansons in 1984 and Honeck in 2018 conducted top performances.
- 1. Andante - Allegro con anima. An opening theme from a clarinet soloist sets a troubled mood. A bassoon suggests a workmanlike dance, in which the full orchestra joins. Soon, the volume increases, and the dance theme turns military. Voices question what is happening. A pizzicato motif in the violins lightens the mood, a lighter dance begins to emerge but soon is ended when louder voices take over. The movement is a series of fits and starts, every attempt at achieving a positive outlook being checked. The closing note is like a question mark.
- 2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza - Moderato con anima. A poignant theme sounds from a horn solo, joined in support by an oboe, but then a bassoon and an oboe turn it into a question. The strings enter but soon their voices rise. They take on and vary the theme but it is being altered. Doubts are pervasive, then a loud burst from the trumpets stops everything. After a moment, the movement’s overall mood returns. As in the first movement, the struggle between light and dark is unresolved.
- 3. Valse (Allegro moderato). A light waltz opens the third movement, becoming excited but still light-hearted. Violins sweep in briefly, suggesting a romantic moment. The mood remains playful throughout the movement, but restrained, a darker theme from a previous movement sounding briefly.
- 4. Finale (Andante maestoso - Allegro vivace). The fourth movement begins with a stately theme, quietly but confidently stated. Suddenly, the violins enter energetically. The movement becomes animated, and drives forward, the most obvious moments of doubt being only momentary. Determined, the orchestra drives forward. A trumpet briefly states a supportive motif. When the dark opening theme of the first movement returns, the people overcome it, turning it into a joyful dance.
Like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 (“Organ Symphony”) (1886) (approx. 34-39 minutes), proceeds from uncertain beginnings in C minor to a triumphant conclusion. “In his Third Symphony, the 'Organ' Symphony, Saint-Saëns announces his ambitions with his choice of key. C minor locates this work in the same vein as Beethoven’s Fifth and Brahms’s First Symphony. . . The harmonic path of the symphony also follows the tragic-to-triumphant arc of Beethoven’s Fifth, as the C minor of the beginning is eventually overcome by C major in the final movement.” “In the magnificent concluding coda the entire orchestra joins the organ in a jubilant sustained C-major chord while the timpani pound out the rhythm, written in 3/1 time to emphasize its majesty.” Coppola in 1930, Paray in 1957, Munch in 1959, Martinon in 1971, Barenboim in 1976, Ormandy in 1980, de Waart in 1984, Plasson in 1995, Eschenbach in 2006 and Stern in 2015 conducted top recorded performances.
- 1. Adagio – Allegro moderato – Poco adagio: this movement carries tones of doubt and conflict in the first two (Adagio and Allegro moderato) sections, then turns to a love theme in the poco adagio section, in which the organ makes its entrance. Aptly, Saint-Saëns called this a symphony “with organ,” not an organ concerto.
- 2. Allegro moderato – Presto – Allegro moderato: In the opening and concluding Allegro moderato sections, the dominant motif suggests challenges ahead. A flurry of activity in the Presto section is interrupted by a relaxing waltz, which quickly returns to a more agitated tempo.
- 3. Maestoso – Allegro – Molto allegro – Pesante: The soloist opens this movement with a grand announcement. Each section of the movement is an expression of triumph.
Julius Reubke (1834-1858) composed two keyboard sonatas suitable to this theme:
- Though it is rarely performed, many musicologists regard Ives’ Symphony No. 4 (1916) as his finest work. The first movement asks the great questions of life, and the succeeding three movements supply an answer. Ives incorporates comedy (2nd movement) and disjointedness (3rd movement) but concludes with an uplifting, spiritual finale. The concluding passages make clear that not all questions are resolved, or definitively answered; yet the human spirit moves forward. (Here are performances conducted by Stokowsky, Robertson and Davis.)
- Braga Santos, Symphony No. 4: Fanfare magazine reviewer Raymond Tuttle writes that the “symphony takes the listener from doubt and struggle, leading him into and emotional territory dominated by the warmth and brilliant light of the sun.”
- Arnold, Symphony No. 5, Op. 74 (1961)
- Thought to have originated in the Carnatic tradition, the Hindustani Raag Darbari Kanada is often represented in visual art as a king holding a sword and an elephant’s tusk (performances by Joshi, Amir Khan and Vilayat Khan). Usually it is played in late night.
- Schmidt, Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major (1913)