Negative Capability

“An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.” —Rachael Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

Our culture programs us to value answers. Yet scientists will tell you that empty space (the Greeks called it kenosis) can be essential for discovery. The poet John Keats gave us a fine phrase that’s now found its way into science and literature and spirituality.

In a letter to his brother dated December 21, 1817, Keats referred the state of unknowing as “Negative Capability.” He tells how he was walking home from a Christmas drama with two friends. Keats describes one of them, Dilke, as a person who has “already made up his mind about everything”: he would never learn anything new. In a moment of irritation, Keats’s insight dropped in.

“Several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a [Person] of Achievement, especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when [one] is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Next time you take a walk with an irritating friend or drop a note to a family member, marvel at this: you may play host to an explosive spiritual paradigm for generations yet to come.

Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize winner for his famous Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics, would speak to his researcher in the middle of some problem. “Wait, I think we have touched something very important here. Let’s not talk about it… Let’s wait for two weeks, and let it solve itself.”

Every creative person knows the void of unknowing as the womb for a new creation. Novelists empty their own personality in order to enter the character they write about. Scientists may halt an experiment to let an idea ferment. Urging Quakers to free their slaves in the 1700s, John Woolman writes in his Journals how often his act of saying nothing in a Friends’ Meeting had more impact than words.

Sometimes you experience kenosis by immersing yourself in passionate action. You empty yourself of any attachments to consequences; you are free to act with love.

In The Shawshank Redemption, a movie based on Stephen King’s novel, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly convicted of shooting his cheating wife and her lover. As prison librarian, he receives LP records. Locking the warden in the bathroom, Andy boldly enters the prison office and plays a Mozart duet over the sound system. Prisoners inside rise from sleep; outside they stand at attention. Red (Morgan Freeman) describes the music as “so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it…. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away… and for the briefest of moments—every last man at Shawshank felt free.” Then Freeman’s voice announces that Andy “got two weeks in the hole for that stunt.”

Genuine humility means following your passion to bless people—like Gandhi, King, or Rosa Parks. Love frees you to claim your gifts and risk being thrown into a dark hole. In Christian experience, it’s the three days in the dark tomb that gives rise to the resurrected Christ. “Negative Capability” is more than reframing; it’s practicing resurrection.

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