Curiosity About Yourself
The importance of family and culture in developing your outlook on life cannot be overstated. Why do most Americans identify as Christian or most Pakistanis as Muslim? Because parents and culture pass these things on to our children and most of us don’t take the time to think them through. And don’t feel badly about it: most of us are too busy with kids and jobs and cleaning to have the luxury to just sit and think.
Questioning why you think as you do is at the heart of my love for self-help. There is goofy stuff on the self-help aisle, to be sure, but I love writers with the skill to tunnel down and find the cracks in our thoughts and pry them open as if with an oyster knife. Pop! “Hey!” we think. “How did that thought get in there?”
Wayne Dyer was a master at this. This kind of questioning was the theme of his book Your Erroneous Zones. Part of his magic was that he never judged. He always left the reader or listener free to have their reasons for what they do and think. His constant encouragement, though, was to understand why you think as you do. That’s the important question to answer. I thought about this as I read a post that I published elsewhere about the sin of curiosity. Sin? Yes, to some. To some people, simply asking a question puts you over onto the wrong side of the line.
Curiosity as Spiritual Adultery?
I’ve never thought much about the rights and wrongs of curiosity. I’ve never thought about whether or not there were such things. I’ve never been curious enough, I suppose. I’ve accepted curiosity as one of the most joyful traits of being alive and engaged in the world. I hadn’t thought much about people who argue that a questioning mind is a weak mind. That a wandering mind reveals an unsettled soul. That curiosity is the devil’s playground. But thanks to Kim Todd and her essay Curious, which I read in the 2015 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, I find myself curious about my curiosity.
She sparks curiosity with the story of the Surinam toad whose offspring emerge from sacs within the skin of the female’s back. I am completely caught. Hook, line, and sinker. My curiosity compels me to read the next paragraph. I shove children aside, kick the dog, and push food away until I learn more. I’m sure that Ms. Todd planned this. Certain clerics, I find, have noted the evil nature of my thoughts. She quotes the English preacher Thomas Brooks from the 1600s who says that:
“Curiosity is the spiritual adultery of the soul. Curiosity is spiritual drunkenness”.
Brother Brooks did not want questions to be asked. This is a hallmark of the powerful who wish to stay in power. A hundred years later, Brook’s tacit warnings that curiosity can take you down the wrong road came true for his organization. As the Scientific Revolution swept through Britain and then the world, questions were asked about things that were once held to be clearly true. By the end of the nineteenth century, the world had changed. Men understood that germs and not sins cause disease and that all lifeforms are related through common descent. Scientists saw the world as exceedingly old and, step by step, found natural explanations for things that folks like Brooks attributed to the Almighty. The heavenly Watchmaker was found without a job.
I’ve experienced some of this though it didn’t occur to me at the time. I moved from the Pacific Northwest to middle-Georgia in the 1980s. It was truly like moving to a different country. People spoke, thought, and ate differently than we did in the SeaTac area of Washington. I went to the local First Baptist Church and found exactly what Todd writes about. Certain topics were already settled with great certainty. Evolution, abortion, same-sex-anything, Catholics, politics: to simply ask a question or to seek understanding of the conflict painted you as a rebellious outsider.
As a scientist and free-thinker I enjoy my curiosity which has been the source of countless fascinating rabbit holes. I teach my girls the same habits
I watch my girls play with Shopkins and wonder at the worlds they create. There are no boundaries here for curiosity. They’re fun little goofy baubles that they buy and then trade with other girls in the neighborhood. I’m proud of my scientific curiosity as if it is something special. But I wonder how my curiosity about nature is so different from their curiosity about Shopkins? What makes one of more valuable than the other? Do science and biology and evolution carry an intrinsic value that separates them from any other piece of shiny foil hanging in a bowerbird’s nest? Probably not in the biggest picture.
So I will be more accepting of people’s goofiness and obsessions. I have plenty of my own and you know the saying: One person’s tomato is another’s tamato. C’est la vie!
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