The most influential class to date I have taken at UConn thus far was a poetry class during my sophomore year. Taught by a passionate, talented, and incredible professor, my class was introduced to poet after poet throughout the year, each class being another opportunity to engage my mind and soul in language and its meaning. Each student in class sought after truths waiting to be discovered- truths created by thought-provoking poets.
Then came poet John Keats.
Now I have actually always enjoyed reading Keats. Poems like "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "His Last Sonnet" always seemed to resonate with me, despite the fact that it always took me a while to fully understand their meanings.
To help combat the initial lack of comprehension that typically came with students first reading Keats, my professor expressed that he wanted every student to search and define the phrase "Negative Capability" for next class.
In layman's terms, it's when you are okay facing the unknown.
While reading the definition, I was reluctant to entertain the thought of being comfortable with the unknown. Keats' idea seemed wise, but to apply this notion towards real life? The unknown (at least to me at this point) was a frightening aspect of my life that took away any control I had on my day, and left me with negative feelings of uncertainty. The unknown as that part of life that made me feel anxious and worried about every answer I gave throughout the day. Was this the right answer to say? Was this the wrong one to give?
How could I feel comfortable with the unknown when my very way of functioning throughout the day felt dependent on answers?
I returned to class, interested in what others would have to say about negative capability. Sure enough, students entered with similar thoughts. As we continued to discuss Keats' coined phrase, my teacher paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, and then spoke.
"Whether you are reading a poem or navigating throughout life, there will be times where there is uncertainty. Things will be unclear and answers will be unknown. But it is the greatest minds that are comfortable with the unknown. It's the strongest minds that are capable of navigating life without needing answers."
His sincere words changed me in that very moment. I had seen the unknown as something negative for so long- why? Why should I worry about the unknown as if it's something I have no control over? Why have I led myself to believe that the unknown should be feared?
The truth is that the unknown isn't scary because it's "the unknown"- it's scary because we have a dependence on having answers as if we need them to survive throughout our day. Our society places such an emphasis on knowing information that we forget not knowing something can be just as valuable. Where there are no answers in life means that you have the opportunity to create them. Understanding that you are capable of making the right decisions regardless of whether you know them to be right or not is the essence of “negative capability". You're not losing control of your life when you face the unknown, but actually you hold more than when you began. You create the truths, you create the “known”.
To end, I leave you with an excerpt I adore from my favorite John Keats poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all ye know on earth, and that is all ye need to know."
If you're reading this professor, thank you.
Give thanks to the unknown.