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Negative Capability: Living with Uncertainty

Negative capability

I was amazed when I heard ‘Negative Capability’ used in a meeting the other day. People were looking at the ways in which society works, and using the term to highlight the skills needed to navigate increasingly complex systems. It’s pretty impressive, considering Negative Capability was a concept invented by the Romantic poet, John Keats, to describe the poet’s seeking after Beauty without becoming bogged down in reasoning.

I’ve always liked this concept. We can easily get distracted from creativity and even living life itself if we try and keep on top of everything. Negative Capability is not really negative at all, it’s about letting go, about wading right into the mystery and seeking out the things most beautiful and important to you. Hold faith with those things you cherish, even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty.

Many people are not happy with uncertainty. They prefer to make concrete decisions about the way the world is and isn’t. I think I’m the opposite. As part of the universe, I feel fundamentally ill-equipped to make final pronouncements on it. I just don’t know. Why are we here? Is there an ultimate purpose to life? I tend to think not, but given the inconceivable improbability of our own existence, who knows? There are always gaps, always possibilities.

I think in our modern context, Negative Capability really comes into its own. Society is becoming more complex, mainstream views are being overturned, strong-man populists reign, a pandemic rages, and the climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. In a decade or two’s time, most jobs will require digital literacy, or be taken over by robots. The times, in short, are changing. Sometimes it feels like the only way to survive is to ignore the the big picture and double down on what matters most to us. Whatever that may be. Art, Environment, Politics. We need to function, and thrive, in the midst of all this complexity.

So, hats off to Keats. What an amazing poet, creating words and concepts that are just as significant now as when he invented them.

How’s your tolerance for mystery? Are you happy not knowing things or do you like to find rational explanations for everything?

Find out more about Negative Capability here.

Interested in finding out about my poetry? Go here.