Negative capability

Students in black academic gowns stream down the wide wood staircase. Chatter chatter chatter. Laughter. Gowns come off. White coffee cups on saucers. The sound of a piano.

My disabled son will never come here, never know this.

Do you know where the Round Room is?

Two girls direct me through the stone courtyard. It's dark and still, except for the running water -- little waterfalls in a pond. I find the Round Room but there's a notice on the door to go to the Upper Library. Back I go across the courtyard. The Upper Library is furnished in dark wood. Chairs with cushions have been set on a Persian rug of blood red and navy and royal blues. In front is an elevated platform with a long wooden table set with wine glasses, a silver carafe of water and a display of poetry books. Behind it sit the three speakers. The walls are lined with bookcases. I can only make out coloured volumes of something called Punch. Middle-aged women with spectacles and notebooks. Latecomers are students with backpacks. The smell of cologne. It's quiet, anticipation, lights somewhat dimmed. Jovial voices waft into the room from what I can only imagine is the Lower Library. Everyone has expensive footwear. Chestnut leather boots with laces. Funky Mary Janes with ankle ties. It feels civilized, well mannered. A door closes as a pianist begins to play outside.

We are here at Massey College, a graduate student residence at the University of Toronto, to discuss something called Negative Capability. The romantic poet John Keats called it "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In health care, "it's a reflective capacity that allows you to step back and not be carried away by answers and actions," says Dr. Allan Peterkin, a psychiatrist and head of the Health, Arts and Humanities Program at the University of Toronto.

Ronna Bloom, a psychotherapist and poet in residence at Mount Sinai Hospital, describes negative capability as a strange, open, shaky place that feels unbearable when clinicians think they should be "doing something. If I'm certain that I know what's happening with a patient then I'm going to lose what's happening."

This openness to not knowing, to ambiguity, allows professionals to "see the person in front of you and the language they're using and their metaphors," Bloom says. She suggests the clinician's role is as a "friendly listener to the patient story."

It's a challenging one because it runs counter to the "perfectionism and stoicism that gets instilled in medical education," Dr.Peterkin says.

So an important element of negative capability is having "compassion for oneself when not knowing," Dr. Peterkin says. "It's not possible to have compassion for the person in front of you if you're being hard on yourself," Bloom notes. Humility is the outgrowth.

Reading literature is a way of enhancing empathy, studies show, "because of the capacity to imagine someone different from yourself," Dr. Peterkin says.

"It allows you to enter lives from the inside in a way you never have clinically," says John Donlan, a poetry editor with Brick Books and a reference librarian at the Vancouver Public Library.

Similarly, asking a brilliant surgeon to write a poem levels the playing field because it puts him or her in unfamiliar territory.  

Bloom says that in poetry workshops, medical students at first judge their writing to be "hokey and cliché" because letting their thoughts flow is foreign to their linear, intellectual education. But they soon come to see that their discomfort has a positive outcome: They begin to feel greater compassion for themselves.  

A psychiatry student asks: "What do you make of the fact that negative capability tends to speak of truth" -- perhaps more than conventional ways of knowing?

And it strikes me that disability is all about sitting with uncertainty -- with adapting to the fact that as humans, we don't control our lives. People with disabilities can't pretend they're perfect, invulnerable. They don't have the luxury of living in illusion.

Oddly, my son Ben, whose intellectual disability bars him from ever sitting in a hall of higher learning like this, may be closer to negative capability than those who study it. If only he could relax into the uncertainty, I think, instead of struggling, like the rest of us, against it.