All too often, I plan my life away. I make arrangements way ahead, work out what I’m going to be doing weeks or months in advance. It gives me a sense of security, the impression that I’m in control of my life. And when things go wrong - or seem to go wrong – then it’s all about how to fix it. What can I do right now, straightaway, to make it better?
There’s also a strong sense of that when I’m in my GP surgery. People come to see me with problems, often hugely distressing problems. It feels like it’s my job to help to fix them – in just 10 minutes.
And when I’m working as a researcher, there’s continual pressure to come up with quick answers and solutions.
But, let’s just hold on a minute…… Perhaps that’s not always the best way to go.
Being uncertain, not being sure, not rushing to make my mind up: perhaps that has some advantages.
‘Negative capability’ is the term created by the poet John Keats. In a letter to his brothers in 1817, he writes about how achievement is linked with the capacity of ‘being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’
The Irish poet Aubrey de Vere speaks for ‘the doubt of one who would rather walk in mystery than in false lights, who awaits that he may win, and who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of a delusion’.
This is important not just in poetry (or in research), but in life, particularly when we are facing our own distress, or the distress of others.
Maybe we don’t need to try to work everything out so quickly. Maybe it’s better to wait, to reflect, to allow events to unfold for a while. Maybe it’s better to let the mysterious or doubtful remain just that, rather than rushing to conclusions that may be false, or making decisions that could turn out to be damaging.
As Beth Rushing says, there is ‘hope, and truth, and beauty in the practice of negative capability, in listening patiently, having a certain level of comfort with uncertainty, and in recognizing that what appears to be given, is not necessarily so’. For the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, it’s about listening ‘without memory or desire’.
We do well to cultivate our ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing - rather than imposing our ready-made certainties on ambiguous situations or challenges.