Doubt is something that is present in everyone’s day to day life whether we like it or not. Humans are often guessing and second guessing each decision we make before it’s even made, and twice after. But how else does that affect our lives? Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Foster Wallace and Annie Dillard each discuss self doubt in the form of essays relating to different topics. Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses the topic in the form of a story of learning french and the revelations that brought about, while David Foster addresses it through his moral confliction on boiling lobsters alive. Annie Dillard discusses self doubt while reflecting on her brief interaction with a weasel! Although these essays have much in common, the idea of self doubt is the most revealing and telling of the author themself, and by that notion, the most interesting point of contact between all three essays.
In “Acting French”, Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the reader about the trials and tribulations he faced while attending a summer program learning french amongst many other students. His story starts with an eager disposition and ends in a trying revelation of himself. Coates enters the program with all will to succeed but soon realizes that no matter how hard he tries, he feels that the other students have something above him. He begins to doubt himself and his ability to acquire the language at any reasonable speed, especially in comparison to the other students. Self doubt brings about this idea of self examination. We begin to try and find where we are at fault, or where this fault we feel comes from. Coates decides to explore his background as the reasoning for his feelings of lack. “Like many black children in this country. I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness.” (Coates 127) Coates has used his frustration and doubt in his french classes to develop a deeper understanding of why he feels this way. He examines social reproduction in the black community and the idea of relative success throughout his essay and how that has affected him. David Foster Wallace experiences a similar self revelation throughout his essay “Consider the Lobster”. The essay begins with many facts on either side of whether or not a lobster may feel pain when boiled alive. His conflict on the issue and his feelings towards it prompt a much bigger question about himself and his own discomfort. He takes the act of boiling a lobster to a set of much deeper and introspective questions about pain and accountability, all stemming from his doubt on the morality of boiling a lobster alive.
Some might argue that self doubt leads to a rabbit hole of unanswerable questions that manifest in “Consider the Lobster”. It causes us to so deeply dissect ourselves that we end up in a pit of infinite philosophicals conflictions. This idea is specifically raised when consider David Foster Wallace’s death, a suicide. Does it help to so deeply dissect why we act the way we do? Or does it cause an unhealthy obsession, that ends in no resolution at all? Although David Foster Wallace’s death is unfortunate to say the least, I can’t help but point to how much his essay reveals to the reader. Light is shown on areas that need to be considered, and questions are raised that so deeply engage the reader and invite them to consider themselves. He teaches the reader to consider pain much more abstractly than once before and makes them understand that something as simple as cooking a lobster might say a lot about the majority of humans who do it. Wallace does all this without being explicit, he simply poses questions about the process and perhaps hypocrisy in the act of boiling a lobster alive. Overall his essay is pivotal in the concept of accountability of our actions and thoughts, and is not self-damning. The reader grows as a person while reading “Consider the Lobster”, they does not wither up and die.
Similar to Wallace, Annie Dillard also uses her personal account of an experience to fuel an investigation on herself and way of life. Her essay “Living Like Weasels” begins with an innocent brief encounter with a weasel, and develops to an inquisition on the philosophy of life. Her self doubt arises when she considers the life of a weasel, and how they live day-to-day. She begins to wonder if they have it all figured out, and humans have it all wrong. She doubts how she lives her life and humans obsession with choice and preference. “But might I learn something in mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical sense and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in in choice, hating necessity…” (Dillard 170) Her self-doubt on her way of life brings about a deeper question of necessity and forces Dillard to think deeper about why she lives her life the way she does, and how that affects her. Self doubt prompts higher level thinking from the author and the reader themself.
When looking at “Acting French” in comparison to “Living like Weasels” the relationship may not be so obvious. However, I can assure you it is there! Each essay rests on a very personal experience which was not meant to offset such a deep self reflection. Coates went to the summer program to learn french, not to consider his entire culture and how it’s affected his ability to grasp content. Similarly, Dillard is simply on a walk in the woods and briefly encounters a weasel. This was not a trek on a journey to self discovery, but could now arguably be one. Each of their personal experiences snowball into very real revelations about their lives and how they have lived. Coates more specifically explores his upbringing in the realm of academics, and Dillard more broadly the idea of how choice has dictated her life and the lives of those around her. Both essays also show how self-doubt comes about frequently in everyday life, and is not something to push away but embrace and ask why. The authors create a much deeper understanding of themselves when doing so.
What does this all mean? Dillard, Coates, and Wallace each use self doubt to expose not only themselves but the readers as well. They force us to rethink our lives as they do the same. Something so personal becomes entirely relatable as we’ve al experienced self doubt in similar ways. Through these essays we learn that there is a place for doubt in our worlds, and we can use it to learn about how/why we and others act the way we do. These essays connect in many ways, but self doubt creates a tunnel to the mind and conflict each author faces, and allows us to point that tunnel towards ourselves to ask the same questions and create a deeper understanding of our own lives.
Dillard, Annie, Wallace Foster David, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Focused Inquiry: Understanding Cultural Identities. 2016-2017 ed. Plymouth: McGraw Hill Learning Solutions, 2016. Print.