Grown-ups never understand anything or themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them (Antoine de St. Exupery, The Little Prince)
A few weeks ago, someone quoted from Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart: “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty”. Brown goes on to associate curiosity with discomfort: “We have to admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking.” Later, Brown links curiosity with the perception of an information gap that we commit to closing. I immediately bristled – internally, since it would have been inappropriate to react to the nodding of heads and pervasive affirmation in the group.
When I was a young child – and even when I was old enough to read them myself – two of my most beloved books were Alice in Wonderland and The House at Pooh Corner. I read them joyfully to my children – and later to my grandchildren. What I cherish about both of them is their exploration of simple, uncomplicated curiosity. Alice hesitates only briefly before biting, although she knows that “one side will make you smaller, the other will make you large”, while the doorknob says “nothing’s impossible.” Pooh looks at every day as a fresh adventure, whether it is confronting the loss of Eeyore’s tail or stalking the mysterious Heffalump. While Alice sometimes bemoans a choice she has made, she quickly picks herself up and asks another impertinent question. Pooh, on each day’s adventure, only hopes that there will be honey involved.
Curiosity may involve a risk, but it is not something that holds either Alice or Pooh back – more than momentarily. Eeyore reminds us that worrying about not knowing – at least more than briefly – can be a path to cynicism and depression. I took this lesson to heart: Be curious. Move on with the adventures. Don’t do anything potentially life-threatening, but assume that the jams that you get in to will be temporary. Don’t think about the “information gap” but move toward the unknown. In other words, nurture the impulse to try stuff, and a full range of emotions that encompasses trepidation, but also the delight that comes with doing or learning about something new.
It turns out that Brown is talking to people who feel “stuck” in a comfort zone. She covers all the research that says that we will be happier and freer if we respond to “I don’t really know” with curiosity. We all get stuck sometimes….certainly, retirement for someone like me, who loved going to work, meant that I had to allow myself to drive past the exit for my office without feeling lost and uncomfortable! And although many routines nurture us (brushing our teeth, eating lunch, going to bed at roughly the same time on most days), it is easy to slip into ways of thinking and habits that constrain. But getting stuck seems to be something that we choose more and more often as we exit adolescence. With Alice, Pooh, and Thich Nhat Han as guides, however, we see that embracing vulnerability (which Brown endorses) is not a conscious decision to endure discomfort, but a practice of anticipating novelty and adventure – of embracing childish wonder and a Beginner’s Mind.
And then there is the spiritual side. One version of Genesis situates our humanness in “original curiosity”: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit…” Albert Einstein echoes this, suggesting that “curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality…Never lose a holy curiosity.” Julia Cameron also argues that curiosity is a spiritual path rather than a cognitive decision, and that it requires habits – she suggests random writing in “morning pages”, scheduled “artist dates” to explore a new esthetic, and regular walks that have no purpose other than to look deeply at whatever is in one’s path.
Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash
I admit that I don’t do these as consistently as I once anticipated, but I have other habits that invoke the same opportunity to approach the world with a Pooh-like sense of wonderment. Meditation – something that for years I thought that was beyond my capacities – clears my brain of monkey-mind, and creates space for hope that goes beyond ticking off items on the incessant to-do list. Connecting every week with someone (or several people) who are willing to engage in authentic and vulnerable conversations about “big stuff” never fails to make me curious.
Of course, I take Brene Brown’s assertions about the benefits of curiosity to heart because it is particularly important as we age. According to Henry Emmons and David Alter’s 9 Keys To Staying Sharp, curiosity comes only a few steps behind the basics of moving, eating well, and getting enough sleep in warding off mental decline. Nor do I want to ignore Brown’s s admonitions against getting too comfortable and avoiding vulnerability. If I am always afraid of falling, will I ever learn how to skip again? However, I also note that as we age we can more easily choose to embrace vulnerability and become more playful, as long as we are willing to follow Shel Silverstein and “grow down” (along with giving away our business attire and our mother’s china):
He got his trousers torn and stained,
He ran out barefoot in the rain,
Shouting to all the folks in town,
“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.
— Shel Silverstein