When I was going over my last blog before clicking “Post,” I lingered on the beginning of the sentence: “Looking at life as a pilgrimage has taught me to be curious…” If I’d read that sentence even a few years ago, I would have thought, So? What’s so special about curiosity? Now, however, I’d rate curiosity right up there with oatmeal, ice cream, and baked beans as keys to a long and healthy life.
I’m guessing most of us started life being curious. I certainly did. I’m told I ran away from home for the first time when I was three. (The family story goes that that I wound up in a police station, and when my mother called the police who told her where I was, she rushed in to find me looking up from a magazine and saying, “Look, Mommy, a turkey!”) But after a series of spankings for running away, or for playing by the polluted river below our house, or for swimming in said river, or for playing in a large expanse of rubble known as “the Black Ash,” I began to see curiosity as a kind of sin, a crime against respectability and decency.
When I hit my quasi-rebellious adolescence, my mother’s curiosity meant her snooping into my business. Questions like “Where did you go? What did you do? Who were you with?” used to set my teeth on edge as I replied: “Out… Nothing… Nobody special.”
Although I remained curious—about sex, alcohol, the world outside of Yarmouth, Maine—the sense that I was committing some sin remained with me, not only against propriety but against my gender. Although I didn’t think about it at the time, I realize now I’d begun to equate curiosity with nosey women, like my mother. Years of domineering male coaches, two years working on a forest fire prevention crew and two years of ROTC had taught me that men, real men, weren’t supposed to be curious; they were supposed to follow orders and “be prepared,” as John Wayne and the Boy Scouts put it.
After that, I don’t think I gave curiosity much thought until about five years ago. Certainly, looking back over those intervening fifty years, I can see myself being curious—I got three college degrees, divorced, remarried, traveled—but I never thought one way or another about why. I just did those things. Then, one day after I’d started working the 12 Steps, I was telling my sponsor how every year for the previous thirty years, as the anniversary of my daughter Laurie’s death approached, my body chemistry changed.
“Well,” said my sponsor, “what would happen if this year you stopped having any preconceived ideas about your reactions and decided to be curious about them?”
Good student that I am, I tried it, and while there were some sorrowful moments, especially on the actual anniversary of Laurie’s death, I also had some joyful times—free from guilt—trimming the Christmas tree and watching the grandchildren get ready for Santa Claus.
My sponsor gave me other ways to practice curiosity: going for a walk without a destination. Trying new foods. Asking more questions. Listening more and talking less. (Perhaps my greatest challenge!)
Since then, I’ve tried to be consciously curious. Which this week has meant being curious about the word “curiosity.” And I’m fascinated by how the various uses of the word mirror my own experience.
The world originally came from the Latin, cura, meaning “care, concern, trouble.” “Incurious,” on the other hand, used to mean “negligent, heedless.” And what’s interesting to me, especially when I recall my deep-seated feeling that somehow being curious was sinful, is to read that in the early Christian church, acedia, sometimes defined as spiritual sloth, sometimes as boredom (which I’d call lack of curiosity) was a major sin. Writing recently on acedia, theologian Frederick Buechner says, “To be bored to death is a form of suicide… to be bored is to turn down whatever life happens to be offering you at the moment… You feel nothing is worth getting excited about because you are not worth getting excited about.”
But then, as Maria Tatar writes in her book, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, western culture came to criticize curiosity. The Powers That Be—i.e., the Church—saw curiosity as a form of snooping and prying, going where one doesn’t belong, disobedience. And of course, the good Fathers of the Church almost always connected curiosity with women. Witness Eve in the Bible, who, eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, commits “Original Sin,” or Pandora, who opened a jar (which somehow over the years became a box) filled with “countless plagues,” and loosed evil upon the world.
Jump ahead to the 19th century, and curious women—Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, et al.— become subjects of a new literary genre, the novel of adultery. Besides dying for their infidelity, these literary heroines turned “curiosity” into a euphemism for “erotic” and “pornographic,” and, according to Etymology Online, the word is still often used to mean “eager to know, inquisitive …in a bad sense.” Think of the image of the old lady behind the curtain with her binoculars spying on her neighbors etched into our culture. (And of course, there was my mother.)
Today, however, we live in a culture that seems once more to value curiosity. Einstein supposedly said he wasn’t unusually smart, just “passionately curious.” “Be curious,” intones Tortein Hagen, President/CEO of Viking Cruises. Comedian and raconteur Stephen Fry, writes, “Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.”
I wonder if the difference between curiosity as annoying, even harmful, and curiosity as leading to extraordinary benefits to humankind doesn’t go back to the word’s early connection with caring and concern: whether one is curious to know solely for the sake of knowing—for puffing up our egos, often at the expense of others—or knowing for the benefit of others.
And my twelve-step sponsor tells me to be curious because curiosity helps me care for myself. It has. Curiosity keeps me open to joy, less withdrawn, walled up, isolated. I am less stuck in the past, which means less critical of the present. I have fewer resentments. Fewer anxieties.
Recently, one of my geriatric friends sent a video of a song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” by country singer Toby Keith. Keith wrote the song as a tribute to Clint Eastwood, who, on his eighty-eighth birthday, was directing a new movie, and who when asked how he kept going, replied, “I get up every day and don’t let the old man in.”
Now, I have a lot of respect for Eastwood (well, I’m not crazy about his politics), and the video is good, but instead of trying to avoid the Old Man, I think I’d rather invite the Old Man in for hot chocolate and ask him questions about how he’s coping with his age—the benefits, the drawbacks. We might compare a few notes.
To pick up on what I wrote in the last blog, seeing myself as pilgrim prods me to be as curious about the various landscapes through which I walk every day as I am when I’m walking through Scotland or Tanzania.
And that includes the landscape of aging.