Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas: “Uncertainty: Negative capability”

NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Uncertainty” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.


Uncertainty: Negative capability

Copyright 2014 David J. Bookbinder

Perhaps the greatest fear I run across as a therapist is fear of uncertainty.

This fear is great because it is so vague and encompassing. We are uncertain about how people see us; what will happen next in our relationships, the economy, the climate; how a meeting with our boss will go; how our children will do in school, and in life; what will become of us as we age; and many other things, all of them unknowable until they actually occur.  And no matter who we are, how we have been raised, how rich we have become, how healthy we seem to be, how good our genes are, how much we know, or how much power we have, we are all uncertain about our own end – when it will occur, what will cause it, whether we will suffer, what will happen afterward, how we will be remembered.

The only thing we can really be certain of is uncertainty. As Bob Dylan once put it, “There is nothing so stable as change.”

Some of us manage uncertainty by replacing it with certainties. We are like Boy Scouts, whose motto is “Be prepared.” In the worst case, we are catastrophizing, always on yellow alert, apprehensively anticipating negative outcomes, hoping to avoid being blindsided, should one of them occur, unable to fully enjoy what is happening now.

Often, however, this approach makes good sense. My father, a former Boy Scout leader, lived by this credo. For him, it took the form of having duplicates, and in some cases triplicates, to make sure the devices in our house kept running. We had a sump pump to keep the basement dry in the event of a flood, a backup sump pump in case that one failed, and a backup of the backup … just in case. Stacked beside the workbench were two or three extra motors for the washing machine and the dryer, and shelves overflowed with duplicate faucets, belts, hoses, clamps, fasteners, TV and radio tubes, and a plethora of other spare parts. We could have stocked a small hardware store with the backups and the backups of the backups, few of which ever actually saw any use.

Or maybe we follow the popular proverb, “Hope for the best but expect the worst.” We have a positive attitude, but we also try, as best we can, to be ready should disaster strike. We save for a rainy day and for our retirement, tape our windows in anticipation of hurricanes, back up our computers, put our valuable documents in safe deposit boxes, buy batteries and bottled water when the forecast calls for snow, invest for our retirement, get long-term care insurance, keep our spare tires inflated. In the 60s, we built fallout shelters, stocked school basements with C rations, and learned to duck under our desks and cover our heads, when the air raid sirens sounded.

But what do we do about the things we can’t prepare for? Or the “worsts” we could never anticipate?

One approach comes from the Romantic poet John Keats, who described what he called Negative Capability, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Negative Capability neither assumes nor anticipates the best or the worst, but instead recognizes that most things cannot be known in advance and sees them, as one friend puts it, as “don’t knows.”

Since I first ran across the concept as a college sophomore, Negative Capability has played out in many arenas. My most vivid experience of Negative Capability occurred during a near-death experience in 1993. I found myself in a condition of becalmed waiting – to live, to die, or to move on, accepting each possibility with equanimity. This equanimity occurred without any effort on my part; it seems to be how we are programmed, biologically, to deal with the possibility of imminent death.

Getting to Negative Capability on a daily basis, however, has been a more difficult endeavor. What has helped most is taking a different spin on the Boy Scout motto: To be prepared not by attempting to anticipate all possibilities, or by having multiple contingency plans, or by hoping or expecting any particular outcome, but by learning to trust that whatever happens, I can handle it.

In my work as a therapist, Negative Capability is a way to consciously open to, and counteract, the fear that I might be unable to deal with what clients bring into the room. A key, for me, has been to persuade myself that I like surprises.

Liking surprises began when I was a client myself. I had recently returned to the Boston area from Albany, NY, and had started seeing a therapist to sort out the many bewildering changes I’d been through following the near-death experience. My girlfriend, who was still living in Albany, came to visit on a day I was scheduled for therapy. I asked the therapist if I should let him know if she’d be accompanying me to our session. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I like surprises.” In that moment, I realized how much I didn’t like being surprised, how hard I worked, still, to be a good Boy Scout – and how liberating liking surprises must be. “I like surprises” became a new set of clothes I wanted to grow into.

My first counseling internship was at MassArt, a college for artists. I had only one counseling psychology class under my belt when I started, but I had assumed I’d mainly be dealing with familiar problems, such as roommate conflicts, creative blocks, relationship issues, academic troubles, drugs and alcohol. But I quickly discovered that my young artist clients were far more complicated and that it was impossible to predict what they might bring to a session. Although these simpler problems did show up, I also encountered suicidality, psychosis, the aftermath of a murder, personality disorders, and many other serious problems I was not trained to work with. “I like surprises” helped me – and continues to help, today – to remain in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” without pushing the panic button, and to confidently assure clients that “we can sort this out,” even when how to do so was completely unclear.

Over time, Negative Capability has fostered a sense of competence in dealing with the unknowable, an increasing adaptability that accompanies my fearful self into uncertainty like a wise and trusted friend. I still don’t always like surprises, but I have grown more at ease with the knowledge that everything is a “don’t know” until it happens.

So far, so good.

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Text and images © 2014, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
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