I am not by nature a curious person. Until recently I did not see that as a big problem. What sparked my interest in curiosity now is two-fold: 1) the Peace Ambassador Training I just participated in raised the issue a few weeks ago in two sessions, one on Nov-violent Communication and one on bridging cultural divides. The point was that curiosity is necessary for not being judgmental and fearful of things or people we don’t understand. Asking questions is an important part of active listening so others feel that one is genuinely interested in them, respectful of their point of view and willing to try and understand where they are coming from. The essential qualities for transforming a situation on an interpersonal or international level are self-awareness, nonjudgment, and curiosity. The speakers acknowledged that this is not a natural way to be for many of us and requires effort and courage. Especially in our polarized society, we need to remember that the basic human need is not to be right but to be heard and respected. To create a safe place for that kind of communication people need to know that we are willing to stay in connection with them, even if we disagree.
I can’t speak for extroverts, but I know for this introvert that kind of behavior feels risky. If I have to ask for information it means I have to admit I don’t know everything and I can’t figure it out in my own head. It means admitting that I need other people, and that means outgrowing the two-year old inside of me that still wants to say “do it self.”
2) My wife frequently comments on my lack of curiosity, e.g. when I fail to ask doctors important questions about my medical conditions, or when I am content to be unaware of what’s going on in the lives of friends and family members. She is much more of the “inquiring minds want to know” school while I often subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” philosophy of life. I have often used my introverted personality as an excuse for not being curious, but when the Peace Ambassadors from the Shift Network made such a strong case for the value of curiosity to be a peacemaker, I got curious enough to explore that issue further.
My first question was why curiosity often has a negative connotation and that resulted in a quick Google search of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat.” I will summarize what I found but if you are curious and want more information the sites quoted from below are: http://www.phrases.org.uk/ and http://www.knowyourphrase.com/. The familiar proverb that curiosity can be fatal for felines began with a slight but very significant difference. “The ‘killed the cat’ proverb originated as ‘care killed the cat’. By ‘care’ the coiner of the expression meant ‘worry/sorrow’ rather than our more usual contemporary ‘look after/provide for’ meaning. That form of the expression is first recorded in the English playwright Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humour, 1598: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” One of the actors in that play was a chap by the name of William Shakespeare, and he borrowed the phrase for a line in “Much Ado About Nothing;” and the phrase stayed in that form for 400 years.
“The proverbial expression ‘curiosity killed the cat’, which is usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions, is much more recent. The earlier form was still in use in 1898, when it was defined in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: ‘Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out.’” That same year, the earliest of the precise current form of the proverb in print is from The Galveston Daily News, 1898: It is said that once “curiosity killed a Thomas cat.”
The original phrasing seems to recognize the well-established negative impact of worry on the human spirit and body. Even felines with their nine lives can worry themselves to death. I get that, but why the switch to curiosity? I found no hard evidence to satisfy my curiosity about that question but I agree with The Phrase Finder, http://www.phrases.org.uk/ site when it says the phrase is “usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions.” Anyone who has experienced a toddler’s persistent asking “why?” about everything from observing a stranger’s behavior to why the sky is blue understands that motivation.
When she was just learning about the differences in male and female anatomy our then three-year-old’s favorite question when seeing a male out in public was “Does he have a penis, Daddy?” Her curiosity didn’t kill any cats but it did create some embarrassing situations.
But stifling curiosity has much more serious ramifications, and while discouraging some curiosity may be for good reasons, e.g. sticking a metal object into an electric socket to see what happens, when we overgeneralize and frown on all curiosity the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.
Christian theology has been a major contributor to negative attitudes toward curiosity. As early as 397 CE Augustine wrote in “Confessions:” that, in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”. John Clarke, in Paroemiologia, 1639 suggested that “He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt”. In Don Juan, Lord Byron called curiosity “that low vice”. That attitude is easily traced back to the dangers of temptation and resulting sin with its roots in the Genesis 3 account of the fall because of humanity’s access to the “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). It is interesting to note that the explanation of the tree’s appeal comes from the serpent, not from God. God just said, “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the serpent who convinces Eve they can become wise “like God, knowing good and evil” if they disobey and partake.
It’s not seeking wisdom that’s the problem; it’s trying to be like God. We are not like God. I have long been enamored with the other creation story in Genesis 1 where God creates humankind in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), but of late the overwhelming forces of human evil and cruelty in the world have forced me to seriously rethink what that doctrine of Imago Dei means. The divine spirit is within all of creation. It’s part of our genetic makeup, but that spirit has to be nourished to even begin to tap its potential. And curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge to be the caretakers and stewards of creation and of each other, seasoned with a healthy dose of humility, are all part of our human responsibility. (See my post from 12-13-15, “Fear of Knowledge.”)
My own experience with education and my family of origin was heavily influenced by the cat killer curiosity mentality. I didn’t learn to do any critical thinking till I got to grad school, and yet I was always praised as an excellent student. Why? Because I knew how to play the school game. I am blessed with a good ability to memorize, and I learned early on that “learning” what the teacher wanted on tests was the path to success in our educational system. Obedience to the rules kept me out of trouble at home and at school because I learned quickly to be accountable for what was expected of me. But there is huge difference between being accountable and being responsible. Responsibility requires critical thinking, adjusting to situations and applying knowledge and principles to new and unfamiliar circumstances. It means asking the right questions and pursuing where they lead rather than just obeying or repeating what we have been taught to do.
That reality struck me hard when I turned 18 and got ready to leave the safety of a well ordered, structured environment. My parents had always made it very clear what the rules were in our house and what was expected of us. Rarely did I test those limits but magically on my 18th birthday I was told it was now up to me to make my own decisions. It’s like handing the car keys to a kid and saying “here, you’re old enough to drive now” without providing any driver’s education.
When I got ready to enroll at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio some of our church members discouraged me because that school had a reputation for being too liberal. There was too much freedom of thought and curiosity there. But faith is strengthened by doubt. Our spiritual muscles or intellectual ones are strengthened by being exercised, just like other muscles. I didn’t know any of that 45 years ago. I wasn’t curious enough to ask good questions about the college and seminary I chose to attend. I went to Ohio State University and MTSO because they were close to home, i.e. not too far outside my comfort zone. Would I make different choices today about my education knowing what 69 years of life experience have taught me? Probably, but I am forever grateful for the grace of God or dumb luck that led me to both of those places where curiosity and inquiry were instilled in me.
Do I sometimes wish I could go back to not being curious? Sometimes I do because life was easier when the boundaries of my world were smaller and less filled with ambiguity. But curiosity is like toothpaste, you can’t put it back in the tube.
The other reason curiosity and non-violent communication seem especially important to me right now is the divisive and hateful tone of the political process in this country. It seems more and more people on both sides of the political spectrum are talking/yelling at each other and not much active listening is going on. Our instant gratification attention spans are much to blame. Curiosity takes time and a willingness to dig deeper than catch phrases, sound bites, and campaign slogans. Curiosity asks questions like what does “Make America Great Again” or “Hillary for America,” or “Feel the Bern” really mean? Curiosity requires working at understanding, not just reacting emotionally to grandiose promises.
Honest curiosity is not taking short cuts or settling for easy answers to complex problems. The Gospel of John (8:32) says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” But that truth isn’t free and curiosity is the price tag.
One of my favorite quotes from literature about critical thinking and curiosity comes from “Inherit the Wind,” by Lawrence and Lee. The play depicts the Scopes evolution trial, but at a deeper level it’s about freedom of curiosity. Henry Drummond tells the following story near the end of the play in Act III to encourage the young teacher, Bert Cates, who is on trial for teaching evolution, to never lose his curiosity and zeal for seeking the truth. It’s about a toy horse in a department store window.
“I was seven years old, and a very fine judge of rocking horses. Golden Dancer had a bright red mane, blue eyes, and she was gold all over, with purple spots. When the sun hit her stirrups, she was a dazzling sight to see. But she was a week’s wages for my father. So Golden Dancer and I always had a plate glass window between us. But—let’s see, it wasn’t Christmas; must’ve been my birthday—I woke up in the morning and there was Golden Dancer at the foot of my bed! Ma had skimped on the groceries, and my father’d worked nights for a month. I jumped into the saddle and started to rock—And it broke! It split in two! The wood was rotten, the whole thing was put together with spit and sealing wax! All shine and no substance! Bert, whenever you see something bright, shining, perfect-seeming—all gold, with purple spots—look behind the paint! And if it’s a lie—show it up for what it really is!”
They say cats have nine lives, but we have only one; and this introvert is planning to use his one to look beneath some paint and show things for what they really are.
p.s. If you’re curious about the picture at the top, that’s a much younger me playing Bert Cates in “Inherit the Wind”.