The doubting game

This semester, I’m taking three graduate school courses: Literature of the Ozarks, American Folklore, and Methods of Teaching English as a Second Language. I am taking the latter course primarily out of necessity; I need all online courses, and it’s one of three courses offered online. I didn’t plan on enjoying it or even learning much from the class, honestly.

However, so far, it’s proven to be interesting and more thought-provoking than I’d expected. This semester is my first venture into the world of online learning. It’s amazing how much you can infer about a person’s personality and likeability based solely on written words. In addition to lively online dialogue regarding TESL, the course has also introduced me to many methods of teaching which have applications to life far beyond the classroom.

Last week, I came across the concept of the “doubting and believing games,” highlighted by a book by Peter Elbow in 1973.  The doubting and believing games “are games because they are rule-governed, ritualized processes, which are not real life” (Larsen-Freeman, 1983). According to Elbow, the doubting game requires logic and evidence and emphasizes that knowing is an act of discrimination. Basically, when learning, the student puts the subject on trial.

The mention of the doubting game took me back to many of my courses at my undergraduate alma mater. Most of my professors, I recall, seemed to be proponents of utilizing the doubting game to separate the intellectual wheat from the chaff. While useful in many respects, this way of learning also infused my way of thinking about the world at large, myself, and others.

In all fairness, the doubting game or some version of it has been my method of reasoning and viewing the world since I was a child. My own mother can vouch for that. I’ve always been hypocritical and ridiculously analytical. I’ve tended to respond to situations and even tragedies in a more Stoic manner than others.

Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the benefits and drawbacks to playing the doubting game. I’ve discounted my own gut instinct countless times. I’ve emulated Thomas, insisting on seeing the scars and feeling the gaping wounds before taking a step in faith. As Sogyal Rinpoche said, “Our contemporary education . . . indoctrinates us in the glorification of doubt . . . to always point to what’s wrong and rarely to ask what is right or good.”

And oh, how many right and good things I’ve missed because of my focus on what might be wrong, harmful, or just uncomfortable. I lived much of my life in the realm of doubtful “what-ifs,” and that held me back from the beautiful what-really-weres.

The past five or six years have been a transition from finding fault with everything to finding beauty in most things. And if beauty is found to be lacking, I try to create it or add it. I’ve discovered joy in being grateful for what is rather than rueing what is not or worrying about what might be. In essence, I’ve stopped playing the doubting game and started playing the believing game.

The believing game “emphasizes a model of knowing as an act of constructing, an act of investment, an act of involvement” (Elbow, 1973). Elbow explains that playing the believing game is like putting on someone else’s eyeglasses or adopting another person’s perspective. It insists upon a willingness to explore what is new and possible.

While there are certainly times, places, and reasons for playing the doubting game, I’m finding that more often than not, being willing to believe is much more beneficial to me, whether I’m studying for class, meeting someone for the first time, or evaluating a relationship. I’m finding peace in allowing God to light the way for me, rather than struggling to light it myself. And I’m finding myself asking the question “Why not?” more often than I’m asking “What if?”

6 thoughts on “The doubting game

  1. Kate says:

    That is so cool! We had to respond to that essay to apply for the honors program. My mentor Norb told me that you learn more about ideas when you try to run with them as far as you can go.


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