“Once we believe in ourselves,” wrote the poet e e cummings, “we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human experience.”
Curiosity is calling, but how many of us listen to it? How many of us are brave enough to undertake curiosity and where it might lead us? Most are secure with comfortable answers and do not like to imagine that there might possibly be others that they may or may not agree with or, worse yet, that there is not an answer.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a child of the question. My curiosity was always sparked by what I discovered in the world around me or in books. I had an insatiable curiosity that was often stifled in school, where I easily grew bored with rote memorization of facts. Truth is seldom found in facts but is often found in paradox, metaphor, imagery and mystery.
Whenever I had a question that adults could not answer (or would not answer), I knew I was on to something. Many were uncomfortable with an inquisitive child and didn’t know what to do with me or, I, with them. So often I allowed my mind to wander and daydream when I was supposed to be paying attention in class. Is it any wonder then that school always felt like a prison to me? I learned far more on my own, when I became curious about one thing, went to look it up in an encyclopedia or at the library, and that led me to something else that was connected and then led me to another question and I kept following each answer that sparked better questions. I’m glad that I didn’t have the internet to just Google a subject because searching through books offered up more than just the answer to the question I was asking, but to my getting a wider and deeper perspective on the world and the universe. Everything became bigger and more wondrous.
My questions shaped who I was and continues to do so. As the poet Rilke said, “Live the questions now.” I also have followed his sage advice by being patient with the question. I don’t always have to have an answer. Questions have made me passionately curious about a vast array of subjects that I could not have cared less for in school (probably because students are taught dry, un-living facts instead of living, breathing questions that force one to go deeper and think more broadly).
Now, I will admit, that my questioning and being curious has often put me at odds our outside of many groups. They view my thought processes or ideas as odd or peculiar, especially in regards to religion. At best, I can define myself as a “Christian with questions.” Ever since I was a child, I have not been able to take things at face-value or the response, “That’s just the way things are.” Instead, I always came back with, “Well, why are they that way?”
Questions can be seen as troubling or exasperating. And, yet, I encourage both of my sons to be curious and not be afraid to ask a question, no matter how hard a question it may be. When they ask me, I listen. Truly listen to what they are asking. I answer, if I can, and if I can’t, I admit that I don’t know the answer. Never do I make them feel guilty or wrong for asking me.
“Curiosity,” wrote Samuel Johnson, one of the most brilliant minds of England, “is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”
Why would I not want my sons to have a vigorous intellect?
Ask questions. Explore. Investigate. A closed mind shows open ignorance.
Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale University, studies what he terms “science curiosity.” What is science curiosity? Kahan defines it this way: Science curiosity is a desire to seek out and consume scientific information just for the pleasure of doing so. People who are science curious do this because they take satisfaction in seeing what science does to resolve mysteries. That is different from somebody who would show interest in scientific information because they had a specific goal like wanting to do well in school. Science-curious people are driven by the pure activity of consuming what science knows.
Curiosity for pleasure’s sake. How many of us just delight in curiosity? How many of us take time to even be curious? Too often we are caught up in the busy schedules of our day that we do not take the time to stop and ponder and wonder. How many of us take even a few minutes to ask, “What if . . .?” or “Why is that?”
In an article Albert Einstein did for Time Magazine in May of 1955, entitled “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: Never Lose a Holy Curiosity,” he wrote: The important thing is to never stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”
I love the idea of curiosity leading one to awe. Certainly, the more I ask and seek, the more beautiful and mysterious and complex the world and the universe appears to me. I keep a notebook with me at all times, to write down my questions, or the questions of others, or thoughts of others that spark questions in me. I love reading something someone else has written that makes me stop and formulate a question that starts me on a new creative and spiritual journey of wondering. And curiosity is a spiritual act. One that Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
When I question and am curious, I see the world in a new way, or a piece of art differently, or gather a new perspective from a novel I’ve read, or from a science documentary I’ve watched.
Take time to wonder, to search out the truth.
For many, this is a scary and daunting task. They are especially afraid of being wrong. The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said, “As I get older, I realize being wrong isn’t a bad thing like they teach you in school. It is an opportunity to learn something.”
What a glorious way of looking at learning and allowing oneself to be wrong. Do we give ourselves the liberty of making mistakes and being wrong in the pursuit of investigation and listening to the world around us? Do we create the space for curiosity in our lives and the lives of our children? Even Christ said, “Ask, and you shall receive.”
Do not be daunted by the unknown. Replace fear with curiosity. Only the dead should be incurious. What fires in us will be kindled when we embrace the wonder? When we welcome the question? When we delight in the unknown and unknowable? What greater gift is there that we could give ourselves or our children than curiosity?
I agree with the short story writer Alice Munro when she said, “The constant happiness is curiosity.”
Curiosity is the creative process.
Let your curiosity be immense and ever-expanding. Be interested, not indifferent. Curiosity is, after all, a very beautiful thing to possess.
So go out into your day and bravely risk curiosity!