Poet John Keats offered the term negative capability to describe his ability to embrace a host of subjective experiences that most people avoid. In a letter to his brother in 1817 he defined negative capability in these terms, “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reach after fact and reason… in order to allow, as yet unimagined, creative possibilities to emerge.”
In an article in Contemporary Psychotherapy, Diane Voller applies this notion to her work as a therapist, declaring, “‘Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge. (http://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/vol-2-no-2/negative-capability/)
Voller introduces the concept of “space” to describe the intimacy of a close relationship that can be found in therapy or with any care-giving relationship, professional or personal. This is the ability to get out of oneself and realize that the distinction between “me and thee” is not as definite as we are taught that it is and yet avoiding the pitfall of co-dependency. It is the ability to enter the domain of “no-boundaries” even as one maintains his/her own “boundaries.” The 13th century Persian Sufi poet Rumi best described this essential spiritual skill, “Out beyond the distinctions of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” Rumi keenly grasped the need of getting beyond the distinctions of “me” and “thee” if we are to enter sacred space with another person and clinical work is intrinsically spiritual. Or it should be.
Voller is simply putting on the table for therapists and care-givers the notion of vulnerability. It is so much easier to practice clinically when one is ensconced in jargon and “shop-talk”, hiding behind a diagnostic knife which always keeps the client “out there” separate and distinct from oneself. And relevant to vulnerability, my mind always comes to a pithy observation from Norman O. Brown, “To be is to be vulnerable.” If one is invulnerable, he/she lacks ‘be’-ing in the world. He/she is just another object in a world full of objects, devoid of any spiritual (i.e. “spacial”) presence.