“At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The poet John Keats in a letter to his brother brought up the notion of negative capability. What he said was that in life negative things happen all the time. We don’t try to make them happen but we make mistakes, or things just go wrong, not just with life but with friends, family, even strangers. He also concluded that there was no stanchion or pillar that we can lean to save us from negative experiences. From this seemingly dark perspective, what are we to do with the existential given of negative experience? How do we develop this capability?
In our culture there are the happiness people, the mindfullness, humanistic, artistic, psychological and cognitive behavioral folk who tout these processess as the cure for what ails us. My colleague used to say that there was no cure of life. Allen Watts, the British Zen master said that we have this quaking mess inside us and the problem was not that it’s there, but that we feel bad about having it. Much of our spiritual leadership whether they mean to or not set goals for us like satori, or nirvana, even bliss. These concepts are valuable but they are goals not necessarily destinations. So what can we do to navigate the straights and narrows of our very challenging world? We drive to work and are cut off in traffic, someone takes something we said and turns it around to hurt someone with it. Things like this are common practice. Do we turn a deaf ear, move to a desert island, buy a rubber car?
I do try to be perfect, do things just right, cross my t’s, dot my I’s but damn it, things go wrong. I make mistakes, not just in what I do but at times my judgement falters. I really don’t like that it does, but there it is. What I do is everything I can think of. I meditate, talk to anyone who will listen, reflect, make notes, problem solve. Inevitably, the problem gets solved or it doesn’t, people understand or they don’t. So we endure, we go through it, we make it to the other side. The question is how difficult or how easy?
One key to being able to endure these inevitable life glitches, mistakes, reckonings, is to not take them personally, don’t expect them not to be there, and don’t think there is any saving us from them. They happen, we learn as much as possible, we try to make it better and then we move forward. The more we “what if” or worry about the future or the past the worse it gets, but in the end, we do it anyway. What I have learned is to be kinder to myself and focus more on the problem. If I try making the problem better instead of me better, I am inevitably more successful. Nothing works all the time no matter what. My experience has taught me that most often whatever my worst fear may be, it turns out to not be true. If there is no saving us from the difficulties of life, then we need to think more about enjoying the ride and know that in the end what we have spent so much time worrying about doesn’t really matter. What matters most is that we have people in our lives that we love, that we work at something that has meaning to us, and we learn how to stay present as much as possible. The rest is just stuff.