A misspent childhood watching Saturday morning cartoons has left an image indelibly imprinted on my memory: a character is in conflict between doing right or wrong, prodded to do good by a tiny angel whispering in one ear, while an equally tiny devil argues the opposite position in the other.
Of course, since these stories were aimed at kids, the ethical dilemmas were usually pretty clear-cut: i.e., whether or not to tie an over-sized napkin around your neck and eat your co-star. However, there was still an almost theological aspect to the sight of funny talking animals — rabbits, ducks, and “puddy cats” — with competing imps sitting on their shoulders, caught in some Warner Bros. version of moral angst.
This image occurred to me again recently, when I came upon something written by Lillian Smith. “Faith and doubt, both are needed, not as antagonists but working side by side, to take us around the unknown curve.”
Often, working with my actor, writer and director patients, it sometimes seems as though little twin entities — one named Faith, the other Doubt — sit on their shoulders, whispering their respective messages, like those winged imps in the cartoons.
Which can be a real problem. Because what gives these cartoon scenarios their curious power, what makes them so compelling, is the illusion of moral clarity they provide. The animated image of these imps is of two competing forces, of which one must inevitably win out. And, of course, one is represented as unequivocally better than the other.
With anyone struggling to grow and maintain a Hollywood career, it’s frequently the same. We all want Faith to win out over Doubt. We want Faith whispering constantly in our ear — inspiring us, encouraging us, instilling hope. And make no mistake, these are blandishments every creative artist needs. It’s too daunting a task otherwise.
The mistake, I think, is to strive to banish Doubt, to see it as the enemy. Because, just as courage has no meaning without fear, faith has no meaning without doubt. They’re the yin and yang of all aspiration.
As creative types, we naturally long to sequester our doubts and fears, to disavow pain and worry. Unfortunately, to vanquish doubt is to leave the domain of the human being. Conversely, to embrace both one’s doubt and faith, one’s fear and courage, is to relate to the totality of the human experience.
The paradox of struggling with doubt — as with all so-called “negative” feelings — is that only by inviting it in, exploring and illuminating its meanings, can we be enriched as creative artists. This is especially true for those writers and actors among you, whose work involves creating life-like characters. The plain fact is, the more willing you are to mine the landscape of your own doubts, the truer and more recognizably human your characters will be. (And the more impact your characters’ faith, if such is their destination, will have.)
Keeping the tension between Faith and Doubt alive within you, without either falling prey to blind optimism or succumbing to despair, is not easy. We veer so often in one direction or the other that, in their exaggerated forms, Faith and Doubt can look like two sides of the same coin.
“But how can that be?” you might be asking. Faith and Doubt are so different, such opposites. Not necessarily, not when taken to extremes.
Let me give you an example. Picture two recent therapy patients of mine, both struggling screenwriters. One is full of confidence, with the faith of a saint in the ultimate success of his career goals. He “feels great” about everything he writes. All he has to do is wait for show business to discover him.
The second patient is full of doubt. He took an evening screenwriting class at his local college, but left after two meetings. He won’t show his work to others because “they’ll probably hate it.” He’s just wasting his time even trying to write, because the odds against success are so huge.
Faith and Doubt, two sides of the same coin. Whether an artist subscribes to one or the other, he’s engaged in a kind of “magical thinking” that leaves him out of the equation. In any creative endeavor, as in all aspects of life, an unquestioning faith is the same as unwavering doubt — both are belief systems employed to try to protect a person from the complicated, sometimes contradictory, always unpredictable ebb and flow of actual experience.
“Faith and doubt, both are needed...”
Which brings us back to those Saturday morning cartoons. Because the truth is, if we each had winged imps named Faith and Doubt parked on our shoulders, competing for air-time, the ideal situation would be for their voices to stay at more or less equal volume. For our attention to shift from one to the other, and back again.
And, ultimately, for us to integrate what each has to say, and to struggle to create and thrive from that place within us where all feelings, including faith and doubt, reside.