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Lynn Hummel column: Doubt makes the world go around

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), short story writer, poet and humorist once wrote, "Four be the things I'd been better without: love, curiosity, freckles and doubt."

I'd been raised to believe that love, curiosity and freckles were all wonderful. But doubt was always -- well, doubtful. So one day when I was thinking about Dorothy Parker's little rhyme I decided I'd see what a local coffee shop philosopher had to say about doubt. Felix is known to have been around the block more than a few times and generally has an off-center opinion on almost any subject.

I sat down beside him, ordered a cup of coffee and a doughnut and started talking: "Felix, what would life be without doubt?"

Felix took another deep drag on his pipe then turned slowly to see who was behind the voice at his left elbow. If Humphrey Bogart had lived to be 75 he would have looked like Felix.

"Doubt? There's no doubt about it: doubt makes the world go round." Then he just looked at me, inviting me to ask what he meant.

I obeyed. "What do you mean?"

"Without doubt, life would be nothing but a mathematical formula and we'd all die of boredom by about age 35."

"Explain, old timer."

"Woman's about to have a baby. Will it be a boy or a girl? Light hair, dark hair, blue eyes, brown eyes, what? It's the doubt -- the unknown -- that makes it exciting. I know a beautiful young couple, both have black hair and dark brown eyes. They have a seven month old baby boy, an absolute charmer who has red hair and bright blue eyes -- his own look, not theirs. Now how did that happen? Doubt. Mystery. Excitement."

"But don't you want answers?"

"No, I want questions. I wouldn't watch the rerun of a ball game after I knew the result. Without doubt it's not sport, it's history. Without doubt there would be no life insurance. If you knew how long you'd live you either wouldn't want life insurance or nobody would sell it to you. Without doubt there would be no romance -- computers could arrange marriages. Doubt is the spice of life."

Felix was talking slowly, but he was warming up to the subject. After every statement he looked at me as if to say "I dare you to disagree."

I didn't dare. He was wired for an argument. He puffed on his pipe and squinted at me through the smoke. But I tried another tack. "Wasn't the doubting Thomas a weakling?"

"Honest doubt is never a sign of weakness. Anxiety and despair are signs of weakness, but honest doubt is a step in the direction of faith. Thomas never wavered once he saw the truth."

Was this old guy just a phoney or did he know something? I couldn't tell. My coffee was cold and my doughnut was dry but I had to ask just one or two more questions.

"Why does everything have to be so mysterious?"

"To be interesting life has to be a mystery son. (He's forgotten I'm a grandpa.) Art is a mystery. Why is the Mona Lisa a masterpiece? Because we don't know what the half smile means. Why doesn't the statue of Venus have arms? Music is a mystery. If we had all the answers we wouldn't have the blues. Poetry is a mystery -- not logical but emotional. And furthermore..." then he looked at his own plate, "sausage is a mystery. What's in it? It's art, music and poetry all rolled into one. So's good pipe tobacco."

Then he grinned. When he saw me glance at my watch he said, "I've rattled on long enough -- you'd better get back to the world of answers and try to earn a buck."

"Just one last question. Where do you pick up all your ideas?"

"Well son, I've been everywhere a man can be, asked lots of questions and made a lot of mistakes. Had lots of doubt, still do. Never regretted a minute of it. Now get to work, do something honest for a change. By the way, don't put any of this garbage in the paper." Then he winked.

"Trust me," I said. And I winked, too.

(Lynn Hummel is on vacation this week. The previous article first ran Feb. 12, 1997.)