Children know something we don’t; this I am sure of. They know something about how to properly live. One of those “properly-living” prescriptions sorely missing from the ecology of the average adult is a cultivated spirit of curiosity. There are few among us that do not read those lines and experience a frisson of wistful, knowing recognition.
Curiosity is a virtue too often conceived of as a charming novelty enmeshed in an age of innocence but not transferable beyond this point. We ought to challenge our assumptions when it comes to this abandoned attribute and take time to trace its overlooked merits, in addition to gaining an understanding of how it so often gets grievously snuffed out in the proverbial shift to the “real world”.
It should be reassuring that curiosity is more natural than artificial. What do I mean by that? It is an innate feature — more dimmed by cultural conditioning than anything else. Luckily, each one of us has the capacity to locate it burrowed inside of us and dust its ancient magic off.
We might be surprised to learn that curiosity is richer than we think and as a mindset acts as a default curator of optimism, wonder, creativity, lightness, freedom, and the delights of individual mastery — just to name a few!
Anyone that has been around young children knows they are stunningly observant. Their wide, saucer-like eyes are forever roaming for something new and interesting to hold their attentions, to which they can emit that characteristic pleased, “ooh!” So too are kids blissfully unselfconscious.
Their scores of questions, their humorous off-the-mark speculations, and their general enthusiasm know no shame. Their curious nature has both a pleasurable and a practical purpose. By way of explanation, curiosity is both fun and a vital means of making sense of the world.
Kids are also excellent practitioners of occupying the present moment, fully absorbed in that pinprick of time. (Sure, such a natural orientation has its limitations. Consider the sheer difficulty of most children to understand the merit of delayed gratification, or perhaps their tendency to erupt into a temper tantrum over a perceived slight that those older have the intellectual capacities and emotional modulation necessary to process maturely.) Needless to say, none of this negates the fact that children overall are connected to a healthy, energetic wellspring of desire to discover and explore.
Even traditional fairy tales which have thankfully still clung to the childhood experience are ripe exemplars of young curiosity. Sleeping Beauty discovers a spindle and in fascination, touches it. Goldilocks enters a home in the woods and unabashedly samples its contents. Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk scales his monstrous backyard creation, piqued by an itch to know what lies beyond the clouds.
The outcomes of such curiosity-stunts are sometimes happy, other times tragic. In all cases, however, the child in question is dually driven by a sense of adventure and a feverish knowledge motivation. So too is there a wonderful agency and personal freedom embedded in the curiosity-driven enterprise. For children, curiosity functions as a crucial means to get them standing on their own two feet. It is risky but rewarding.
Something kids have also attained expert-level status in is the art of questions. Often experienced as relentlessly probing, needling, and multiplying to the adults that field them, grown-ups can be too quick to discount reams of questions as mere child’s play.
It is another caked-on misconception plaguing the halls of adulthood that answers are superior to questions. Not always. Unquestioned answers, after all, can prove exceptionally dangerous animals. And so many of the smooth, controlled, “answers” that adulthood houses may be misguided themselves — merely brittle theories of how the world works that would really benefit from the truth-hammering benefits that avid questioning necessarily entails.
After all, it is rarely the case that those dead sure about everything in life are the most intelligent. Instead, it is those curious souls willing to accept the divine mystery of a world that is never fully knowable, meanwhile remaining committed to not shrinking from this implicit challenge and inquiring regardless — day in and day out — that are really on to something. One of my favorite Mary Oliver poems, Mysteries, Yes drifts into my mind:
“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say,
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.”
— Mary Oliver
I have earlier remarked that curiosity dwindles with the cultural conditioning that comes with age. Despite the laudable and sprightly verbal declarations of nurturing curiosity in the land of elementary-school (recall this ideal enshrined in countless posters papering the walls) it is the rigid system of school itself that inescapably deadens organic curiosity over time.
What do I mean by that? Significantly, schools may purport to champion creativity but conformity is generally what is produced instead.
Formal curriculums with their hard, bullet-pointed learning objectives mold impressionable kids over the years into creatures rewarded more for espousing obedience than for espousing holy curiosity. Know that my remarks here are not meant to be an indictment against formal education which has obviously served a great purpose; I simply aim to present an honest assessment of what systematized education inevitably produces.
Schools are driven by an organizing impulse. They need to ensure kids meet learning benchmarks and are kept in lockstep as much as possible with their thousands of peers flung across the country. The system of education, in this way, is not especially hospitable to the kind of aimless, inspired wandering of pre-grade-school yore. Again, it is never explicitly expressed of course: curiosity slowly dulls over the course of one’s formal-education tenure by the gradual, concealed system effects rather than being outwardly denounced by plain rhetoric.
By the time one arrives at adolescence, an individual have fully adapted to the ritualized world of education with its dead demands and uninspiring abstractly-worded learning outcomes. They sense adulthood waiting in the wings and have certainly observed the relative absence of that carefree, enthralled curiosity of the kind nostalgically preserved in the children’s books that populated their early youth.
From observing their elders, they come to believe a slightly embittered sense of duty is their future lot. After the necessarily conformity-producing socialization from their stay in the education system they find themselves trained to regard curiosity as the frivolous legacy of childhood, an era they cannot help but feel compelled to break from.
Perhaps the tarnished reputation of curiosity occurs even earlier, in the exasperated brick-wall pronouncements made by caregivers after particularly inexhaustible bouts of eager questions: “Because that’s just the way it is!” The child slinks back. As they grow older, they may interpret their curiosity as something childishly embarrassing, excessive, in need of being dimmed in order to comport with “mature” social norms. Such is the disillusionment characteristic of adolescence.
Filmmaker and author Tim Burton once brilliantly remarked,
“Anybody with artistic ambition is always trying to reconnect with the way they saw things as a child.”
He certainly gives pause for thought. He makes us remember: We saw things with fascination and delight and would unashamedly content ourselves with quirky subjects, seemingly insignificant objects, finding beauty and meaning in these pursuits — did we not?
Often, we are well into adulthood when we experience the sudden revelation, that quiet ache of loss, that we deserted something on the plains of childhood, back there, that we’d now like to reclaim. Aldous Huxley once said,
“A childlike man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.”
Seen this way, curiosity is not indicative of whimsical blinders, it is not a relic of childhood to chuckle at in fond memory. Instead, it is the mark of an evolving, free person.
All this being said, many may yet be skeptical of my claim that adult curiosity is in short supply. Nearly all would nod their heads in agreement to my praises of curiosity, but here’s the catch, do most of us genuinely practice it in our daily lives? I’d venture to guess no. Allow me to supply a couple of reasons why.
Firstly, many adults may feel suffocated by their “identity-concepts”. By way of explanation, they may be dissuaded from pursuing those natural interests that tug impatiently at their souls because they believe these interests to be incompatible with their public personas — or perhaps ill-adequately aligned with the existing pillars of their life so that their dabbling attempts would feel unproductive or silly.
Say you are an accountant and you secretly field flickering urges to tinker with art. These two interests with their seemingly polarizing relationship may threaten your adult persona, generating identity confusion. This incompatibility-question is certainly not a universal dilemma, but it is a legitimate hurdle for some.
I also believe curiosity is thinly practiced in adulthood because it contradicts the scarcity-mindset that so many of us are unconsciously chained to. A curiosity or “abundance” mindset views the world as richly interesting, teeming with possibilities and potential discoveries, indefatigable, always supplying us with fresh fascinations and sources of meaning and beauty.
A “scarcity mindset,” on the other hand — in many ways a fixture of American adulthood — is grounded in the weariness of marathon to-do lists, perpetual fear of depleting energy and the miserable task of scraping together enough time and inner and outer resources simply to get by. It is faithless, closed-in, rote.
The abundance mindset implicit in the adult practice of intentional curiosity delivers freedom, lightness, and a delicious openness. Flipping to the scarcity mindset again: it is hemmed-in, gloomy, unconvinced of the healing potentialities of aimless fun, inquisitive questioning, and a reincarnation of the childhood spirit in all its freely-roving, individualist glory.
So, what is the verdict? Actively practicing curiosity requires intentional nurturance in a collective adulthood environment necessarily hostile to it. Curiosity connects us back to our childhood vision, a time when many of us were awash in wonder and naturally spurred by an insatiable desire to know and explore.
It alleviates the unseen pressures of obedience and conformity, and allows a new, light freedom to usher itself in in its place. To be curious is also to partake of an “abundance mindset;” to dabble in the belief that the world is full, lush, and with immense depth and powers to spiritually sustain us.
At its root I believe curiosity to be far more profound than we initially think. It is the very naked, glittering essence of what it means to be human. I will end with two quotes that demonstrate — albeit with a cryptic elegance — just this. And I will leave it up to you, the reader, to tap into that underutilized psychic muscle heretofore discussed to discover their veiled relevance.
“There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.”
— William Stafford, The Way It Is
“Are you happy?” “In all honesty? No. But I am curious — I am curious in my sadness, and I am curious in my joy. I am everseeking, everfeeling. I am in awe of the beautiful moments life gives us, and I am in awe of the difficult ones. I am transfixed by grief, by growth. It is all so stunning, so rich, and I will never convince myself that I cannot be somber, cannot be hurt, cannot be overjoyed. I want to feel it all — I don’t want to cover it up or numb it. So no, I am not happy. I am open, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
— Bianca Sparacino, Seeds Planted in Concrete
So do not let your curiosity die. It is freedom, beauty, pleasure, and unflinching desire for truth bound up in one. Don’t forget!