Wednesday, 25 March 2015

In praise of uncertainty

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.

And by resting in uncertainty, we allow space for something new, something transformative, to emerge.


  1. I absolutely agree. Tolerance of uncertainty is one of the traits that most equips a person with resilience according to researcher Martin E. Seligman. See his various books - I particularly recommend Flourish which is his latest. I also like the work of Brene Brown, a social work lecturer and shame researcher whose TED talk went viral a couple of years ago. She talks a lot about the pre-requisites for wholehearted living which are to do with risk and vulnerability rather than the opposite. I am following an online course of hers at the moment which is very illuminating in that it turns on its head the usual ideas we have about being vulnerable i.e. that it is weakness. Her research with hundreds of people underpins all her ideas which is what makes it so powerful.

  2. Reading this evoked that heartsink feeling of “I know you’re right, but”. If reaching the position where one can be tolerant of uncertainty is the ultimate zen-like state…then I am at the point which is farthest away from it; if everything isn’t planned, organised and ‘worked out’, then I find it most unsatisfactory, annoying and, more often than not, panic-inducing!
    Sarah Nettleton discusses this problem in her paper about Medically Unexplained Symptoms, quoting Bauman who says that the very acts of trying to gain control of disorder (through classifying, naming, categorising and so on) generate more disorder and chaos. He also says that such ‘ambivalence’ is a defining feature of our age.
    Whilst Bauman was talking about society as a whole, I’ve found this to be relevant to my own personal behaviour and angst; if I over-plan things they tend to go terribly...or at least not how I had expected them to go…which leaves me feeling anxious and flat. However, despite acknowledging this, and understanding the problem, I have failed, until now, to do anything about it! So my question would be – how can I learn to be more tolerant of uncertainty, particularly about things that demand some certainties from me, for example in the work environment?

  3. Mary O'Reilly de Brun emailed me this:

    I am reminded of the spirituality of Ignatius Loyola. Now, among other things, Iggy decided (when confronted on a long journey by a fork in the road) to drop his donkey's reins and trust that some greater power would discern the way forward and steer him aright... hmmm... but later, he actually wrote powerfully about the process of discernment (so maybe the donkey steered him aright?)... and he offered two related 'wisdoms' that I think could serve well when living with broken fragments of truth: Never change direction in the dark (i.e., when in a state he described as 'desolation' you hang in there, trusting that the direction you chose when in 'consolation' - when you were able to discern 'in light' - had merit, so perhaps trusting in broken fragments of truth can be enough)... and he also said the darkness always ends. That's not the easiest message to just take on board, especially if you're feeling low or you're grieving or really sad, but I've been amazed over the years at the number of people I've mentioned it to who've come back to tell me they did hang on to it and it made a real difference. I wonder if it can be that, in the 'space between' ( we talked abut this, didn't we - the space between people where the unexpected can happen) where we no longer control anything, an ancient wisdom can be heard in a modern-day setting... and take root.

  4. There is a lot of interest in this post in Ukraine and Russia. It would be good to know who is reading it there, and why!

  5. Write some more Dr Dowrick & tease out some more responses