In Praise of Curiosity
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here:
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
W.H. Auden 'Leap before you look'
As a small child I was full of questions, as children usually are, but no one seemed keen to answer them. My older sister did her best but when she also grew tired of me she gave me an all-purpose, very memorable answer: 'When you die and go to heaven, you'll know everything.' Ah, to my mind that would be heaven indeed.
The curiosity of an inquiring mind is an engaging quality. When my children were young I tried to answer their questions (and learned in my turn that parents get overwhelmed and long for silence sometimes). As they grew older and the questions harder, we looked things up in the dictionary or encyclopedia. Older still, and dogmatic assertions would be challenged with 'name your source!'
Of course by then there were the Internet and Wikipedia, a kind of heaven on earth.
When I was in my last year at school, a presentation by a psychologist gave me another 'heaven indeed' moment as I longed to know what made people tick. My university course did not always live up to that ideal but gaps were filled by the opportunity to protest against the Vietnam war and nuclear proliferation, or to join in the fledgling feminist and conservation movements. I learned that growth comes through relating to other people in honest, at times courageous or even foolhardy, ways. The question 'what will happen if..?' had some exciting answers.
Curiosity took me around the world in my twenties, a tremendous act of faith when no one in my immediate family had even been to Australia. Armed with the first edition of 'Southeast Asia on a Shoestring', a very slim volume, I spent over a year following my nose, and other backpackers, through Asia to England, finding out what in the world was out there. It was a formative experience which gave me a priceless insight into other cultures and myself.
Rather than assuaging curiosity, exploration seems to increase it. New Zealand has been populated by restless people who longed to know what was over the horizon, and having arrived at almost the end of the earth, seem compelled to turn around and go off again in search of new places and people.
I am glad that I can still be enticed into new study, travel, skills. A snippet caught on the radio will have me looking up a topic to check a fact or expand on it. A client will reveal a way of life I had never given thought to – as a fisherman or a professional jockey, perhaps. A friend I thought I knew will show a hitherto hidden part of her history.
And I can still surprise myself, by finding that I am out of my depth learning a new skill and react with traits I thought I had long ago mastered, or by rising to the painfully intimate revelations of a client with a response that is not in the book but is intuitively on the mark. As a friend in her 80s said, 'There is so much to learn about myself.' And so much about other people can inform and surprise even after a lifetime of listening and learning.
But without curiosity this richness will lie unmined beneath the surface.