Being content with what you don’t know

How’s your negative capability doing?

By Rick Cupp

For the Peninsula Clarion

So here’s a question for you. How’s your negative capability doing?

I came across the phrase “negative capability” from the poet Keats and he doesn’t use the term in a bad sense. On the contrary, he places a high value on it. Here’s his definition: Negative capability is the humility to be content with what a person doesn’t have.

Notice it is not synonymous with contentment, which is being satisfied with what you do have. This is being at rest though there is much you don’t yet grasp. So a poet with a good negative capability will write about the truth and beauty they see. They do this even though there is still much they don’t understand. If they waited until they understood everything perfectly, they would never be able to write. They simply share what they do have.

Negative capability allows a family to be hospitable. They invite others in to share a meal without ever worrying about not living in a mansion or not being able to provide filet mignon with a side of lobster.

Negative capability allows a person to volunteer in their community to help others. They give of their time and talents without worrying about how much “better” others can give. What they can give, they give.

In the New Testament in the Bible Paul advises people to have a good negative capability, though he doesn’t use that term. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load,” Galatians 6:2-5.

It is one of the best secrets to being happy that I have ever found! Do what you can do and take pride in that without comparing yourself to others. There are, without a doubt, many who can serve better than you and I can. They may be wiser or say things better than we would have said them or act with a greater kindness than we find in our heart. They may have greater resources to give than we do. But we can find a great joy if we don’t let that keep us from doing our part and being grateful for what we can do.

Not only does that bring us great satisfaction but it even seems necessary for faith in God. A person with a good sense of negative capability can trust God even when there are things that happen that they don’t understand. My father often said, “I wish I understood everything I know.” I’m with him! But his lack of understanding did not keep him from faith and teaching that faith to his family. Nor does it shake me when I conclude there are apparently things that happen that are above my pay grade.

I want to trust when my knowledge is incomplete and serve when I have not yet become who I want to be. I want an ever deeper negative capability!

Rick Cupp ministers at Kenai Fellowship. Sunday Bible class 10 a.m. Worship is at 11 a.m. and livestreamed onto Facebook. Visit

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