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Curiosity, Wonder and Awe

Sometimes, when you are haunted by the same issue again and again in the period of a few days, and seemingly in random unrelated conversations, you might start to think that there is an idea, an inspiration, a message knocking at your door. And you probably ought to go see who's there before they change their mind and think you're not worthy of the call.

Four times in two days, I've had occasion to discuss something like these questions with four people, two times initiated by them, not me:

"Why do you suppose that so few of the adults you know seem to be curious? What relationship does our capacity to wonder have with our collective intellect and culture? How does one nurture a sense of unknowing, unassuming curiosity, the child's mind, that expectant freshness when encountering the ordinary to think maybe there are understandings both above and below the surface of things that, pondered, would make us richer in spirit?"

So, that is what I'm thinking about today, with hopes of reaching some conclusions by next Thursday's deadline for the "Road Less Traveled" column in the Floyd Press. There's something here worth exploring, and I'd be happy for your experiences, ideas and comments on this topic.

This is a rich vein, and not likely to be wrapped up in one 700 word essay. Heck, there may be a book here. It is central to so much of what has driven me, and drawn me, over these past years of writing--the sense that there are worlds within worlds beyond our jaded senses. Because we have so many facts, we think we've reached the end of the matter. That's just nature, climate, consciousness, memory or language. Ho hum. And we look for stimulation in television and computer "realities" that really don't carry us anywhere worth going.

Help me here. I haven't give you much, I know. But I'll get back to you soon. Promise.

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Comments

I'd read somewhere that each person's life is like a novel, and the best we can hope to know is one or two pages. My point is that we can't really know other people all that well, especially casual acquaintances. Thus I would say that when I see someone who does not seem curious, it may be that they are simply not curious about the things I am or in the ways I am. A seemingly complacent person may have a rich life of inquiry that I cannot comprehend or even observe.

That's my early morning thought.

A rich vein, as you say, Fred. And one worthy of much reflection. It triggers so many thoughts for me, but for now I'll have to make do with trying to express just an outline of one of them.

I've often pondered on what factors result in success in any field - a poor word, success, that doesn't really capture what I mean; maybe I'll be able to think of a better one. Achievement in the broadest sense - not the material sense of gain, but a setting out on a quest, after a goal of personal development and growth.

Anyhow, whatever we call it (and in reality I think tese factors probably apply to the narrower definitions of success too) over time I'm come to notice that there are three factors at play, all of which have to be fulfilled.

We need the basic ability, we need desire, and we need opportunity. Have those three, and you can conquer the world. Or even write a book :-)

D'ya know, I just realised I could write an essay on each of those. And here I am having written nothing for weeks. Thanks for the prompt!

Anyway, back at the plot. My guess is that, for most people, all of those factors are present to some degree, but not with sufficient drive to overcome whatever it is that gets in the way. The the desire to ask questions and dig deep does not sit comfortably with our western culture of instant gratification, minute attention spans, and an expectation that a ready answer to every question already exists - so why ask more questions? And it's not cool. So it is that the basic capacity for wonder has become weakened and emaciated though under-use. Perhaps the biggest factor of all is the pace of life; the opportunity for wonder requires first that you notice something about the world and then take the time to reflect upon it.

I know that in my case this last is the over-riding block. I'm acutely conscious of being caught up in a world of non-stop bustle and activity - believing that somewhere I have both the capacity and the desire for deeper reflection and wonderment, yet denying myself the opportunities to fulfill those capacities. But I'm encouraged to find that on the increasingly rare occasions when opportunity finally breaks through, the magic can still happen.

Goodness, that's the most I've written on anything for an age. Thanks again Fred for a deeply thought-provoking idea.

I wonder how closely what you describe is linked not to knowledge or intellect but to biology and the aging process. I remember an interview on public radio with a very old author who was well into his nineties. He was asked about his vivid recollections of his past. He described that at his age, the future is problematic, so one naturally tends to look backwards rather than forwards. Do so long enough and memories and past experience shed some of their obscurity and become more vivid, the present and future somewhat less vivid, less compelling. I wonder if that process doesn't begin sooner than many of us think.

I know I'll never lose my sense of curiousity and will - with a bit of good fortune - live well into my nineties, leaving behind a few unfinished projects. Never stop looking forward!

Sean

My wife and I were discussing this just last night when we were looking at our local ant lions. She was firing questions at me faster than I could think to say "I don't know."

"Why don't we know," she finally asked in frustration. "Hell, we've been here 60 years. You would think by now we would have figured out at least the small things."

That's why I married her. I think what brought this exchange on was that we both had just finished reading Bill Bryson's excellent book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything." The book is prompted by the author's experience as an adolescent reading a science textbook and wondering, "How do they know?" Later in life the impetus stems from the desire to know what it is we do know and why we do not know more than we do. Curiosity is the essential ingredient.

I think curious people are of a whole different mind-set than others who are less curious and the latter are often mystified by the interests of the former. In evolution, natural selection has deemed it worthy to supply our good world with both. Are there more less-curios people than there used to be? Don't know but I doubt it. I just wonder sometimes what did occupy their minds before TV?

My wife and I are now on a quest to understand as much about ant lions as we can...well, at least as much about the ones who live around here. It's a worthwhile pursuit...as curious as it sounds.

Edge of the Earth Rd.
Lexington, OK

This is also a question my sister and I have been discussing in relation to our young children and their education. I think part of the problem (hopefully w/out opening a can of worms), is the way we educate and school our children- it kind of sucks that natural curiosity, wonder, and creativity right out of them. There is a retired teacher that does story time at our library. My son always likes to tell her grand stories that he makes up and is constantly asking her questions about everything. She has mentioned, more than once, that she hopes his imagination & curiosity doesn't get crushed once he starts school. I know I wasn't taught to think for myself much, or to think out of the box in my educational experience. No offense to teachers- I've been in the educational field and know that most are doing their best. There was a wonderful educator named Charlotte Mason that expounds on this in several books that I've been reading. It sometimes seems to be an uphill battle- instilling that love of learning in children- the whole concept that it's not just something you do at school.

Synchronicity is at work, for sure! My husband and I were talking about this late in the night while our 11 year old grand daughter slept in the bedroom down the hall.

She has always been a curious child, full of what if's and why for's, answering her own questions with outlandish anwers of the imagination. Something has changed this past year, the year of her "maturation". Suddenly she is not so curious about how things work. She is more in tune with the television, the gameboy, the mall, and her friends electronic devices I haven't even heard of. I am wondering if her curiousity has been suppressed or transplanted by the fast world around her. Deluged with information unasked for, seemingly full of certainties and overloaded with sensory stimulation that goes no where. I wonder if today's children are deprived of the wonders of quiet reflection, finding answers on their own, and getting the quality family interaction to pose questions that demand conversations.

I know I sound like my mother, but I worry that this phenomenon might cause our children to be less curious about the world around them, not only as children, but as adults. We try to provide that environment for our grandchildren, and by the end of 4 days, they are back to asking "but, why!?", and "how!?", but I know all too well that it will be back to the electronic age of answers before the end of a week. Perhaps given a chance, that curiosity will blossom again and guide her to new discoveries about the world around her. I am hopeful that it is just a passing phase, but I am still concerned about all the changes in our world and their effects on our children.

I think Pablo make a valid point. I know a lot of what passes for curiosity in people I know is about Reality TV, sports, or other subjects of equally pressing concern. Since I have little or no interest in these subjects, I can not understand the “curiosity”.

On another line of reasoning (?), I feel curiosity is killed in most of us by a few things as we grow older…

One would be time…we are always in a hurry to get somewhere or finish something. This single-minded focus kills curiosity. In order to feed curiosity you have to stop the rush, which is why so many people seem to be finding comfort in the eastern “religions”. The focus of each is to slow down and contemplate the now, once you slow down you become curious about the simple things around you.

Another curiosity killer is comfort. As children we have no fear of water or mud or any of the messier things in life. Sadly, parents and teachers spend a lot of time training us out of that freedom. If you are afraid of getting dirty you are not going to get of the trail or into the stream to follow that muse fed by curiosity.

And third, there’s that curiosity killer you mention so often in your blog…”what would the neighbors think”. I know you don’t feel it that way, but you do seem to feel a semblance of this one as you seem to see the absurdity in some of the things you do in chasing your own curiosity.

It is really kinda sad when you think about it…we spend the second decade of our life trying to lose the childlike qualities embodied within curiosity, only to discover that it was those very qualities that made life enjoyable. Then we spend probably the second half of our life trying to recover that childlike curiosity.

Forgive the long comment, you caught me after sleeping late…

Curiosity has been one of the main ways I describe myself, and I think of it is my best and occasionally my worst traits. My curiousity leans most towards my interest in human nature, but I also never stop being curious about how the whole thing works and how we fit into it. Sometimes my detective-like tendencies can get me in trouble in soical settings, such as when I blurt out a question that most everyone is thinking but no one will ask.

On a side note: Recently, I said to my husband, "Why do so many people view agnostics are doubters. In reality, aren't they just open-minded?"

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