I’m starting to wonder if I have a curiosity problem. This never occurred to me before. After all, I love a good mystery. Libraries—the sanctuary of the curious—are my happy place. Imagination—where questions are born—is a sturdy, internal realm that I visit often. As a writer, I know that curiosity is a crucial tool, best kept sharp and shiny. Curiosity and I are good, old friends. Except…
Do I treat my curiosity more like a dirty secret than a trusted friend?
There was a time when I used to wonder out loud. I peered through every keyhole, tested every lock, turned the knob on every closed door—just in case. I watched for holes in stories and pointed at them. I made connections between ideas and tested those bridges out on others. I wandered and wondered out in full view.
Over time, something changed. My curiosity persisted, but my willingness to test it out in front of others waned. Instead, I’d delay my quest to know and employ clandestine habits designed to satisfy curiosity without risk of embarrassment or humiliation.
What happened? How did shame get involved?
Looking back, I see a trail of very stale breadcrumbs that led from there to here—moments when my weird questions led to awkward silences, unsatisfying replies, or worst of all, ridicule. A bewildered look would let me know I’d wandered away from the expected and into strange territory. A dashed off response intended to divert or pacify clued me in that I’d become annoying. Maybe the adults involved were merely uncomfortable—my curiosity had taken them past the boundaries of their own knowledge or experience and they had no idea how to answer. Less forgivable are those times that I received an answer delivered in a tone that made me feel small and ridiculous for even asking. Technically, my curiosity may have been satisfied, but the answer I’d sought was so laced with toxic disdain when I got it that the whole subject had become tainted.
If the sources of knowledge around you—family, teachers, friends—fear for your sanity or give you inadequate, or treacherously squelching answers in response to your genuine, wild and natural need to know more—well, you might do anything to scoot around the scrutiny and circumvent criticism. In my case, I took refuge in books. I found safe haven in libraries. I piled up good books and made a fort. Books are neutral. Books are safe. Right?
Our culture is studded with stories—cautionary tales—about curiosity:
Curiosity killed the Cat. Eve broke the world when she tasted forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Pandora opened that tantalizing box. Bluebeard’s naive (unnamed) Bride, married a monster, opened the door of a forbidden room and found carnage: the bloody corpses of brides that came before her.
Isn’t it fascinating how cataclysmic the consequences of curiosity are in these stories? So bloody. So final. So dire. Strange, here, how quickly a simple query leads to apocalypse or homicidal rage…
Eve doesn’t get a belly ache after taking a bite; her actions lead to the fall of all of humankind. Bluebeard’s Bride isn’t merely scolded; the price for opening the forbidden door is a gruesome death. Pandora, we are to believe, is responsible for unleashing the greatest horrors upon the world: greed, hatred, disease, poverty, and war. We don’t know how many of its nine lives that Cat had left—maybe none.
Curiosity must be pretty powerful if all the cautionary tales built around it come equipped with repercussions this devastating.
Does curiosity really matter?
Many experts and luminaries agree: curiosity is key.
Brené Brown, a researcher known for her lectures on vulnerability, describes curiosity as the “super power of middle age” and the best way to weather rejection. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés examines the pervasive “trivialization of women’s curiosity” in stories like the Bluebeard fairy tale, and asserts that questions, especially those one is forbidden to ask, are “the keys that cause the secret door of the psyche to open” causing a “germination of consciousness” and the ability to recover vitality. In a recent interview, writer Margaret Atwood, when asked how she had remained prolific, active, and sharp into her eighties, told Tim Ferriss that it was curiosity that kept her thinking, writing, and publishing work. Re-framed, the upside of being curious sounds pretty good.
What about the consequences of keeping quiet?
What if the squelching of curiosity invites other forms of narrowing? What if a reluctance to ask questions leads to a fear of taking risks? Risks like… applying for good jobs, trying out a new love or hobby, choosing the riskier dream path with big rewards over the safer one that keeps you trapped in a smaller life. Maybe a stunted relationship with curiosity feeds inaction and stifles the ability to wonder what if. What if I could do that, try that, be that?
Maybe curiosity never got pushed to the edges of your life. Maybe you followed every stray thought, whim, and wondering to a satisfying end. Or maybe your questions got you into enough trouble enough times that you stopped asking them out loud. Maybe you saved up your wonderings and what ifs for private spaces and research. I think there’s hope even if you took a long break from investigating the mysteries and silences and untold stories that floated about you. For one thing, we have Alice holding down the fort amid all those stories in which females and their curiosity catalyzed destruction. We can be like Alice…
Alice didn’t slip down the rabbit hole accidentally; she made a choice. She drank from the bottle and she ate the cake, even knowing they might change her. Alice found wonderland to be “curiouser and curiouser” at every turn (which any good explorer would if she’s really paying attention), but the strangeness did not stop her. Not ever. Alice traveled a wonder-filled dream world, led by her own curiosity, encountering strange folk and surreal situations, and she never stopped looking or asking questions. And…
The world didn’t end because of it.
Alice got home just fine—she returned to her family, pondered what she’d seen, and, no doubt, slept in her own bed that night. Where she might dream of wonders again.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.