Emily Dickinson’s “Smart Misery” of Doubt

Paolo Veronese, "Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane"

Even Jesus had moments of doubt: Paolo Veronese, “Garden of Gethsemane”

Spiritual Sunday

I appreciate much more those poets who wrestle seriously with their doubts than those who assert belief with a calm certitude. For that reason, George Herbert is my favorite Christian poet, but Emily Dickinson ranks high with me as well. In today’s post I look at her skeptical response to (among other Biblical passages) Luke 11:1-13, today’s Gospel reading. That’s the one where Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer and then follows it up with the following reassurance:

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In “Of Course—I prayed—“ Dickinson finds it difficult to accept Christ at his word She is no atheist, however, because she experiences a “smart misery.” She believes in God but cannot believe that God will open the door when she knocks.

Of Course—I prayed—
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird—had stamped her foot—
And cried “Give Me”—
My Reason—Life—
I had not had—but for Yourself—
‘Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb—
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb—
Than this smart Misery.

Dickinson says angrily that it would be better to be a heedless materialist, a loose collection of atoms, than be wracked with her doubts. The image of someone throwing a temper tantrum and stamping her foot reminds me of George Herbert striking the table in “The Collar.” Of course, a bird stamping her foot in mid flight doesn’t make much of an impression.

The doubts never left Dickinson. One finds them in “This World is not Conclusion,” even though the poem appears to open with a confident assertion of life beyond the grave:

This World is not Conclusion. 
A Species stands beyond – 
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles – 
Philosophy, don’t know – 
And through a Riddle, at the last – 
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne 
Contempt of Generations 
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies – 
Blushes, if any see – 
Plucks at a twig of Evidence – 
And asks a Vane, the way – 
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll – 
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth 
That nibbles at the soul –

The first 12 lines—through the references to “Contempt of Generations” and the crucifixion—seem to signal that Dickinson is strong in her faith, despite how the Christian mystery defies empirical verification, philosophical reasoning, and common sense (“sagacity”). One could imagine Dickinson at this point quoting Hamlet’s observation to his good but unimaginative friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

But with line 13, one suddenly realizes that Dickinson has been describing an idealized belief, not her own. Her faith falters—slips, laughs self-consciously, is embarrassed—when confronted by Reason. It looks desperately around for evidence, no matter how small (“a twig”) or how random (whichever way the wind is blowing). Preachers confidently delivering strong Hallelujahs are not enough to quiet Dickinson’s doubts. Instead, she regards such confidence as a narcotic and an ineffective one at that. The toothache of doubt till nibbles at her soul. She never rests easy in her belief.

I think of an Anne Lamott’s observation that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Too easy belief, she and Dickinson would say, is facile belief. True belief must be fought for.

Further thought:

After posting this essay, I came across the following description in Relevant Magazine of John Calvin. The article is about famous Christian doubters and includes C. S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, Charles Spurgeon, Luther, John Calvin, Pope Francis, and Lamott. Calvin, it notes, believed that

doubt wasn’t something Christians should fear—instead, it was something we should even expect, and not be surprised by when it creeps into our lives: “Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”

Calvin understood that doubt was a part of the faith experience, because human nature itself finds ideas about God and His goodness so outside of what we can understand: “For unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful.

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  • Susan Schmidt

    Great poems by Dickinson. A few comments on the first. I interpret “smart misery” as misery which is informed (or smart) because Dickinson believes God exists and has given her both her life and her reason, but God is not doing what one wants him (her) to do. :

    My Reason—Life—
    I had not had—but for Yourself—

    “Dumb misery” would be suffering without the knowledge of God as an animal perhaps. Easier, for sure, but on a lower plane. I think Dickinson prefers the questions than not to have them at all.

    “Where is God and why doesn’t God do something?” is a question that has been one for years. Even the Prophets use it:

    Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, That the mountains might quake at Your presence– As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil– To make Your name known to Your adversaries, That the nations may tremble at Your presence!… (Isaiah 64:1,2)

    However, if we see the God “out there” as the only source of power and change which we need to help us, we will refuse to do the hard work of evolving ourselves into the loving, creative, generous, courageous people human beings have the capacity to become. For this we count on the “God in us”, the Spirit of God, which gave souls to our bodies and connects us to each other and to the deep love of the universe. Who helps us to understand disease, psychological roots of conflict, the intricacies of our ecosystem, etc.

    The doctrine of the Trinity gives us a God who inhabits all perspectives and is active on multiple levels – God (the “Father”) who holds all things in Godself, who suffers with us, continuously sends us grace and desires our best, God within us (Holy Spirit) who indwells us and all the universe energizing and directing us toward that good, and God who became a man (Jesus), showing us how to live a life of purposeful action toward love of God, self and other.

    I think doubt is part of life. However, when it paralyzes us from acting toward the good, it is harmful. John says, “Little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in action and truth. And by this we will know that we belong to the truth, and will assure our hearts in His presence:…. If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” I John 3:18-20.

    When we doubt the existence of God/good in the world, we can look at those who continue to live for good – who create, write, advocate, share, give generously, work for reform, confront evil, lovingly provide for families.

    Dickinson’s second poem shows the role of faith. If everything was a conclusion, where would be the fighting against the odds, the need for heroism, for risk, for trusting in an inner voice? During the early persecution of the church, Peter encourages his readers to stay strong, because their faith is more precious than gold. (1 Pet 1:7)

    Doubt has its purpose. Doubting is not condemned – as Jesus shows us when gently encouraging Thomas to find the assurances he needed. However, Jesus also says, those who can’t touch but still believe are more blessed than those who can. Despite doubt, they continue to choose to live a life of love.

  • Robin

    What a beautiful reflection, Sue! As so often in a healthy life, we must live in tension, even though we may want everything concluded and definitive. But if we had that, we would reduce mystery to our own selves. I love your distinction between smart and dumb misery. The one who is “merry and nought and gay and numb” only seems to be. Scratch that surface and something very different will appear. (T. S. Eliot talks a lot about this numbness in “The Hollow Men” and “The Wasteland.”)


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