Curiosity can map the gulf between us. But how should we navigate it?

I love what Elizabeth Gilbert has to say about curiosity. She writes,

We are constantly being told to pursue our passions in life, but there are times when passion is a TALL ORDER, and really hard to reach….

But curiosity, I have found, is always within reach.

Passion is a tower of flame, but curiosity is a tiny tap on the shoulder — a little whisper in the ear that says, “Hey, that’s kind of interesting…”

Passion is rare; curiosity is everyday.

Curiosity is therefore a lot easier to reach at at times than full-on passion — and the stakes are lower, easier to manage.

The trick is to just follow your small moments of curiosity. It doesn’t take a massive effort. Just turn your head an inch. Pause for a instant. Respond to what has caught your attention. Look into it a bit. Is there something there for you? A piece of information?

Curiosity has become a core value for me, now that I feel that I can prioritize it. It was surprisingly hard to do – I had internalized a sort of Puritanical masochism – if I liked something, well, there couldn’t possibly be any objective value there. Like food that tastes too good, it just couldn’t be good for me.

But I have come to believe that we can think of curiosity as sacred. I lend myself a little trust – that it matters that I am attracted to something, that I want to know more about it. I trust that anything I learn is worth knowing, and that exploration is not a waste of time.

And I find that given the license to be curious, I’m most surprised by my renewed curiosity about other people, especially ones who see the world differently than I do. How do they see it? How is it different from what I see? When I get to learn about that, my own perspective shifts, and my world is always enriched. Before, I think I was afraid, somehow, to ask. Each of us has an entire universe in our own head, and it’s different in so many ways from everyone else around us. Imagining this, it’s not hard to see why people experience so much conflict – to the contrary, it’s amazing we can ever find common ground at all! Perhaps that’s part of the reason we humans have such a strong affinity to people like ourselves – the diversity of universes might be so overwhelming that we retreat into a small corner of them and hide.

But this concern about asking – my fear was exaggerated, but I still think caution is justified sometimes. After all, people aren’t just books to open up and read. It’s not my prerogative to get into people’s heads and see what they see. When I seek to connect, I need to be careful not to see people as mines full of data to slake my curiosity. After all, isn’t that what we hate most about social media? The way it has turned our most sacred bonds into data to be extracted and monetized? (Oh – just me?)

I believe that curiosity can reconnect us across these vast divides we seem to live in. But that’s only true if that curiosity is rooted in respect and compassion. I want to know about you so that we can connect as we should be connected, because I hold you in high regard as a fellow human being. Because I see you as intrinsically connected to me, because I see the image of God in you. Not because I want to know your weakness so that I can turn you to my side, or so that I can add you to my demographic data tables and charts to inform marketing or campaign strategy. Not so that I can look enlightened or write a better novel or enrich my world. Not when it turns the person I am curious about into an object – literally objectifying them. So I have slightly tweaked this core value – I call it “ethical curiosity.”

Curiosity can help us draw a map back to one another, but only when it connects, not when it extracts.

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