Reading Matters

The advantages of being in the dark

“You don’t need to track down bad news,” a wise friend tells me. “The news you need will always find you.”

That’s more or less the premise behind “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing,” by Jamie Holmes, a former research coordinator at Harvard University in the department of economics.

Holmes says it’s unpleasant to be confused (or in the dark) so we tend to “grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances.” We’re hardwired, he says, to resolve contradictions quickly. And this works if a tiger is chasing us. No question: we run.

But the need to know or to have closure has a down side. “It makes us stick to our first answer,” he says, “which is not always the best answer, and it makes us search for meaning in all the wrong places.”

So bottom line, Holmes advocates what the philosphers have been telling us for eons: Being in the dark -- confused -- has advantages, if we know how to use that mental place of ambiguity.

Holmes mentions the term the poet John Keats made famous: negative capability – that state in which we are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. What a grown-up concept.

Holmes also mentions the Russian novelist Anton Chekhov who believed that morality lay not in our relationships with what we know, but in how admirably we deal with what we don’t know.

If you’re hard-wired to know and want to get more comfortable not knowing, this book will guide you down that long, dark hall.