Maybe we focus too much on successes. Maybe we too often celebrate the end goal. It is easy, after all, to celebrate accomplishments: when you reach a certain life stage, there will be compliments and congratulations and cake; there will be elation; and then there will be the next stage.
There are other steps, though, entangled with successes. Fear, anxiety, panic and tears tag-team their way through our lives and, although quieted by one success, they re-surface. They come with new jobs, with new relationships, with a big move, with stretches of unemployment, with financial stress – with any uncertainty.
It seems that seeing the unknown stretched before us incites the drive to fill it, to figure it all out, to answer the question of what comes next. How do we use these little scraps of living that we’re patching into a life to become the successful, happy adult we had envisioned?
The term “negative capability” was used by John Keats to describe this state of unknowing, as it pertained to writing. In an 1817 letter, Keats criticizes his contemporaries’ push for epistemological thought over awe and appreciation of the natural world. He prefers negative capability: when a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.”
This literary device calling for authors to leave aspects of their writing open to interpretation aids in handling uncertainties in reality.
Keats contends that we should be susceptible to the unknown, because susceptibility leaves an open space for creativity and independent thought.
When I first read Keats’s letter, I was a senior in college. I was struck by the strength and confidence he maintained. “Capable of being in uncertainties” – the phrase stuck with me as I began my post-grad job search. It was a rallying cry to apply for any job anywhere, to travel, to live whatever life I wanted.
As a theory, it was fine. In reality, it was a hollow cry.
It soon became apparent that life wasn’t a simple stepping-stone after college. I felt defeated, and I looked jealously at peers with jobs, scholarships, or admissions to graduate school. When I finally was offered an administrative assistant job, I started planning on what would come after it. (This hadn’t been what I wanted, after all.) I was constantly, irritably, reaching.
Uncertainties push us; they challenge and change us. It is important to never twist that blank space in front of you into some preconceived imagining, because then you forego the opportunities within that space. Let it be a blank space. Let it loom long in front of you. Forget that you thought you would reach its end, where everything is how you thought it would be.
I’ve learned to cope with my uncertainties by finding my own space, where no external or internal pressures can infiltrate the necessity to enjoy the present moment. I paint, I read, I teach myself something new. I’ve even found that, since entering the professional world, I’ve become more creative by setting aside the time for personal projects. It was Keats, again, who said, “I…have come to the resolution never to write for the sake of writing, or making a poem”. This mindset prioritizes genuine inspiration over an end goal.
I believe that part of handling uncertainties lies in how you apply yourself. To push past my post-grad panic, I worked hard.
I relentlessly applied to jobs, then to graduate school; when I was not accepted into graduate school, I allowed myself one day to sulk, then began applications to new jobs. I am glad I worked hard, but I am also glad my hard work took me in a direction I had not planned.
I have worked several jobs since graduation, and with each job I have learned something more about myself, about interacting in this world; and I have grown surer of my capability to succeed in my next challenge. You just have to put your head down, brace yourself for the next challenge, and extract all that you can from the new experience.
Uncertainties are still terrifying, and they appear in different iterations to different people. I believe, though, that however you can, aim to arm yourself to be impervious to uncertainty. Stay independent, adaptive, and creative. When you do reach steady ground, don’t confuse certainty with complacency. Be capable of handling uncertainty. After all, it’s a lot less scary than complacency.
Liz Shand lives in Brooklyn and works at a publishing company. Eventually she aims to earn her PhD in English literature and research the connection between mental health and reading literature. Ideally she would live in the Scottish Highlands with a few good friends.