Negative Capability and a Chronic Condition

I recently read about Negative Capability, a term coined by the poet John Keats in 1817. According to Keats, negative capability is, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” But, what is the connection between negative capability and a chronic condition? Stay with me for a moment.

Diana Voller offers another definition of negative capability:

“…the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge.”

Diane Voller

gray magnifying glass and eyeglasses on top of open book. Represents looking for possibilities when living with a chronic condition.


Photo by Wallace Chuck on

Emerging Possibilities

Aa an artist, Keats learned how to sit with the doubts of his skills and creativity. In doing so, he discovered that, with time and patience, creativity and artistic inspiration flowed. Dr. Voller also seems to be saying that possibilities can emerge when we choose to sit with (or submit to) uncertainty or doubt.

Which leads me back to you and the connection between negative capability and a chronic condition. Are you living in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts with a chronic condition? 

If you are a caregiver, are you doubtful that you can live up to the task at hand? Are you uncertain if you are doing everything you can for your loved one? Do you question your faith or belief in a higher being?

If you are the person living with a chronic condition, are you uncertain or fearful of how your health will progress? Do you doubt that you will return to “normal” or that you can thrive during these difficult times? You are not alone.

What Are You Capable Of?

The term negative capability can be broken down into two thoughts:

Negative – This is the acknowledgement that negative things happen in life. You didn’t do anything wrong. Negative realities are just a part of being human.

Capable – Capability means having the skills necessary to achieve something. In this context, that would mean the skills to handle negative realities. And being capable of handling uncertainty too.

So, two questions to consider, then, might include:

  1. Can I accept that bad things happen in life?

  1. Am I capable of sitting with the uncertainty and doubt? Or do I resist and push against the negative in my life, thereby increasing my own suffering?

Sitting With Uncertainty and Doubt

Let’s revisit part of the second quote again.

‘”Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge.” 

Interestingly, this quote creates an optimistic anticipation of what may come when we sit with uncertainty.

So, what would happen if you stopped running from uncertainty?

What if you purposely submitted to the doubts you are experiencing?

Can you see emerging possibilities? Is there a possibility to:

  • slow down and appreciate things in life you took for granted before?

  • grow closer to a loved one?

  • take a break from a routine or path that was too frantic or rigorous?

  • develop a better understanding of universal suffering?

  • surrender to a higher being and will?

At the time I am writing this blog, I have been home with my 4 children for 35 weeks straight because of the coronavirus. There is uncertainty about when we will make our way back into the classroom. My youngest child is struggling with the constraints of virtual learning. Our community is deeply divided over politics and the return to school. And I question if I am making the best decisions for each child. These are my current negative realities.

But when I stop resisting, I can see the possibilities of these times as well:

  • extra time spent with each child

  • getting to know their teachers in a way that would not have happened before.

  • appreciating good weather. Good weather makes it easier to get the kids off the screens and out of the house. And I have sat in the sun in the middle of the day for the first time in years.

Final Thoughts

I don’t see these possibilities every day. The instinct to resist the negative or swirl in negative thoughts and doubts still exists. But I am getting better at “purposely submitting” to the reality that life over the next several months will continue to be uncertain. And I am practicing looking for the possibilities. Both of which help me to control the negative thoughts and feelings that come with stress. 

What possibilities might you find if you stop resisting your negative realities? And how might these possibilities help you to find some level of peace with your current circumstances?

If you need help building your skill of negative capability, contact me to set up a time to talk.

Disclaimer: This blog is a resource through which you may obtain information regarding your health and wellness.  Information is intended for the general reader and is not a substitute for medical advice.  The content in this blog is intended to be informational only and not interpreted as specific advice for you.  There may be delays, omissions, or inaccuracies in information contained in this blog. You should always consult with a licensed healthcare professional who is familiar with your health and past medical history before making any changes you may read about in this blog.

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