Learning from “Curiosity Killed the Cat”

[The picture associated with this blog is one of my favorites of our Mongolian cat, Hobbes. It shows his playfulness and the embodied question that seems to lurk in many cats’ minds when there is an unknown box, a new bag, or newly closed door to a room: “What is in there?”]

Why?

What for?

How come?

How much longer???

The insatiable appetite of the curiosity of children.

Children tend to be naturally curious, inquiring about philosophical issues with the proverbial, “Why?” Of course, their naiveté may generate questions that expose an adult’s ignorance (Why is the sky blue?), or an adult may find the inquiries uncomfortable (Where do babies come from?) or even inappropriate (How much do you weigh?). As such, children may hear this phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat.” While this may not completely deter the child’s curiosity, over time his questions may produce laughter by others with the words, “What a stupid question!” Eventually, the fertile soil of curiosity becomes littered with rocks and hardened due to lack of moisture. In this environment, the child may begin to learn to embrace silence over curiosity because silence, the child realizes, implies the child knows. Unfortunately, silence may also foster an increase in interpretations and expectations. And there is nothing quite like interpretations and expectations to kill curiosity!

What is it about curiosity that we as adults may increasingly resist?

Sometimes it may be a result of our own family system. As humans, each of us has been raised in a family system that is like other systems, such as a solar system, in which there are patterns, rules, or laws that maintain a homeostasis, or an equilibrium to help the system function. When we are born, we are plopped into a system that is already up and running, and as we age, we learn the patterns and the taboos of that system . . . the laws. For instance, ponder with me for a moment being raised in a home in which silence was equated with anger. It seemed like an unspoken rule, a taboo, to inquire if someone was angry; instead, one was to know through the silence that the other was angry at you. As a member of this system, the child learns this well but may be unaware of her budding understanding. As the child grows and forms relationships with those outside this system, he takes this belief, be it consciously or unconsciously, into other relationships. When a friend or a spouse does not respond or interact with her, the assumption is made that the other is angry at her. If an email is sent and a response is not heard directly, the receiver of said-email must be angry at the sender, or so the interpretation goes. The pattern may be so ingrained that the person has difficulty entertaining or holding onto other possible reasons for the lack of a prompt response. It is as concrete as an algebraic equation of x=1, but in this scenario silence=anger.

Why not simply inquire in order to ease one’s own anxiety?

As an outsider to such a system, that seems reasonable, doesn’t it? However, not only may the family system have implicitly placed a taboo on these types of inquiries (after all we are just suppose to know!), but expressing our curiosity makes us vulnerable. And vulnerability increases our anxiety, too.

Using Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability . . . It is a risk to be curious; there is uncertainty how the other will respond to our curiosity, and we are emotionally exposed when we express curiosity. We may be exposing what we do not know. We may be allowing the other to see our finitude. Thus, curiosity may be like stepping out on a limb that extends over a deep chasm. It is dangerous, and it is not a secure place from which to explore, and so, we have learned to protect ourselves and avoid that limb of uncertainty.

This means, then, it takes courage to be vulnerable and express curiosity. Such curiosity may defy any shame inside of us that screams,“Danger! Danger! Appear like you know!” Expressing curiosity of the other’s experience flies in the face of our fear of the other’s reaction. Remember in junior high or high school of being too afraid, too embarrassed, or may be too ashamed to admit, “I do not understand” because of our fear of being laughed at or scorned? Similarly, anxiety may be repeated over and over again when we interact with others . . . so we make judgments, interpretations, assumptions, or place certain expectations on others.

In many ways, curiosity invites others into our lives. That is risky because I do not know how she will respond. Through curiosity I am opening myself up to being hurt but also the possibility of being healed and changed. I have no control how he will hear my expression of curiosity. I am allowing my story to intermingle with the other’s story which may change both of us. I am opening myself up to learn from the other, and in so doing, there is a possibility of teaching, too. I am receiving a piece of the other’s story as I unfasten the bolt that helped to protect me, and this makes room to possibly giving of myself. Through curiosity, then, I am attempting to release my interpretations and expectations about the other by inviting her into my life. I am inviting his very being into my being. Thus, curiosity is not safe . . . after all, it did kill the cat. 😉

With curiosity we are trading our interpretations for an invitation. We are giving up expectations by inviting the other to simply be. This is an invitation for us and for the other to come and sit together and be. We are opening ourselves up to a possible connection with the other. We are taking down the walls and inviting the other to sit with us. We are allowing our stories, the essence of who we are, to perhaps be challenged, to potentially be changed, to possibly transform our interpretations and/or our expectations. With curiosity, we are leaving behind labels and discarding preconceived notions. We may be saying, “I do not know you, and I want to know you. I want to trade my interpretations for learning.” In many ways, curiosity is a way to become a child again. To see the wonder of another human being. To be influenced by his story. To take a risk. To plunge into uncertainty. To allow ourselves to be emotionally exposed.

As a Christ-follower, I turn toward the Scriptures and wonder about Jesus and curiosity. Jesus embodied vulnerability [see blog #9 on vulnerability], so it would seem that he also demonstrated vulnerability through curiosity. I find no fear in Jesus who invited the other into his story or invited himself into the other’s story through the expression of curiosity.

In some instances, curiosity became an invitation for healing to transpire in the space between Jesus and the other. For instance, Matthew 20:29-34, the crowd was irked by two blind men who kept calling out to Jesus, causing the crowd to tell these men to be quiet; however, the two blind men were not to be deterred—they shouted even more loudly. Unlike the crowd who were not open to these men, what was Jesus’ response? He inquires, “What do you want me to do for you?” Here is the absence of an interpretation that these blind men would want to be healed. Instead, Jesus invites them to himself by the way of curiosity. As a result, it is through this expression of curiosity that Jesus is moved—he has compassion on them, which means he suffers with them—feeling deep within his gut for them—resulting in Jesus’ action of healing them. It is in this space that was provided by curiosity that there was healing.

Sometimes Jesus uses curiosity as a teaching moment, such as verses 24-28 of the same chapter. Here the mother of John and James desires to ask a favor of Jesus, and Jesus responds with, “What do you want?” After the request that her sons be placed on Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom, it is interesting that the other ten disciples respond with anger. Thus, Jesus perceives that all of his disciples have a lesson to learn about serving rather than desiring power and authority over others. In a subtle way, Jesus’ expression of curiosity in this pericope embraces this very attitude of serving.

While space only allows me to note a couple of instances from Jesus life, there is one instance that recently generated an audible laugh from me, which I want to include. On Easter I was reading each Gospel’s accounts of the resurrection when I read Luke 24:13ff. In this story, the women had reported to the disciples about their encounter with two angels, and Luke writes that their story “seemed like pure nonsense” to the hearers. This is followed by an experience of two men who are walking away from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus, discussing the events of the last couple of days when Jesus joins them. Luke notes that the disciples looked sad, and Jesus inquires, “What are these matters you are discussing so intently as you walk along?” Notice: here is an invitation . . . an offer to listen . . . a request to enter into their world. At this point, the man named Cleopas asks Jesus, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” What is Jesus’ response? Another question: “What things?” Personally, I find this amusing. I wonder if he asked this question with a twinkle in his eye that went unnoticed? Although I am assuming Jesus knew, let us not overlook that this question is an invitation: Tell me your story. Tell me of your experience. It allows Jesus to listen to them, to walk with them in their despondency. To be present to them in their sadness. To form a connection.

As I consider Jesus’ vulnerability and a way in which he exhibited it through curiosity, I pray, “Lord, may I participate in what your Spirit is doing with those I come in contact through curiosity. To embrace my vulnerability and finitude. To offer an invitation. To create space for a connection. To allow you to heal and to teach.”

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