On Being Human

LET US SUMMON KEATS

Someone just sent me a note about the uncertainty of life during this pandemic.

“I want facts and certainties. I want to know when this will end, when we can gather again around tables. So I summon Keats, who believed that the best poets shared a comfort with ambiguity that allowed them to explore ideas without being consumed by the need for answers.”

The writer was reminded of the poet John Keats, who, in a letter to his brothers, noted the ability of humans to exist “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats called the idea “negative capability.”

Of course, life has always been uncertain. But the normalcy of before, our routines and such, often masked it and many were happy to live life that way, as oblivious as possible to the inevitability of disease and death. I, however, having lived through many strange and harsh experiences have given up on certainty.

People often misunderstand this. I once wrote that “life is fleeting” on Twitter or somewhere, paraphrasing a line from the movie Patton. A friend responded how depressing that comment was. It was not meant to be pessimistic. It was, and is, merely a reflection on reality.

The phrase comes from Roman history. After great victories in war, Romans would celebrate. During the festivities, someone would follow the victorious commander, reminding him that all glory, all fame, is fleeting.

Being human means living with uncertainties and mysteries and doubt. We are finite. We don’t have all of the answers. And that’s okay.

ajh

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