One of the first aphorisms I remember hearing was “curiosity killed the cat.”
I remember as a boy wondering what in the world that meant. I am pretty sure it was my McBrayer grandmother who uttered the phrase and I recall a vague sense of warning and foreboding…… be careful. One of my caretakers was giving me a signal as to what was acceptable behavior and what was not. Fortunately, I did not heed the warning.
A pie safe, that my daughter now has, had a special drawer where that same grandmother kept things she wanted to keep safe. There was a treasure trove of objects in that special drawer. There were pencils, pens, an old flashlight, political campaign buttons, church bulletins, photos….. things that were kept “in their place”. Little did I know that the same thing was true for people.
It was not where she kept her “rheumatism medicine”, an elixir made by Dr. Jack Daniel, not prescribed by her doctor and not legal for Baptists South of God. She kept that, I knew from looking, in the top cabinet of this pie safe. She didn’t bother to tell me not to open the cabinet because it was out of my reach. She did not know that I could drag a chair over and climb. I was content to simply look at the mysterious bottle, at that point, which was daring enough.
She warned me not to “meddle”, as she told me that people, the ubiquitous group of unnamed authority figures that were “out there”, would not like it if I did. She obviously thought that would stop me from exploring. It didn’t. She used other strange words to define outlaw behavior, words like “pilfer”, “skulk”, and “snoop”, words that disappeared in my world other than the hip emergence of Snoop Dogg, and that surely wasn’t in her head at the time.
The day she caught me looking through the “what’s it” drawer, she slapped my hand and sternly reminded me, “I told you not to meddle.” The slap stung, but her words and look hurt more. I was exploring, curious as to what was in the forbidden drawer. As much as I wanted to know what was in the drawer, I wanted her to love me, to give me the approval that I craved even more. I had broken a rule by going beyond the boundaries she had conscribed. I had done “bad” while I wanted to be “good”.
I tucked the lesson inside my heart, and moved onto the porch, trying not to skulk, which would be a double sin in her book. It wasn’t long before I heard her call, “David”. She was summoning me back to the kitchen, this time not to scold me, but ask me to help her “flour” the cubed steak for dinner. I would take each piece of meat, put it in the dish of flour, flip it to make sure the other side was properly dusted, and then put it on a plate. She would brag on each one that I completed, and then later, tell my mother and granddad that I had helped her cook supper, that I was a good helper. Another lesson was tucked away.
That was my laboratory early on. That is where I began getting the lessons of life. Scolded and slapped when I violated the boundaries, praised and celebrated when I did what I was told. That was the early script my director handed me as I took my place on stage, and began my act. The play was entitled, “The Dichotomous Dance of David”. I have spent my life trying to transform that dance into a dialectical two-step, with some success.
Now, I know that my upbringing is not unique. Each child is brought up with rules to follow, partly to keep them safe, but in larger part, to control. As a parent, I know intimately both sides of that behavioral equation. Each child gets rewarded in a variety of ways, some verbal, some physical, some with deep love. And every child winds up being corrected, some verbally, some corporally, and some with “that look”. You know the one.
This is the normal start to life for us humans. We have an innate desire to explore, to learn about our fresh world, to discover new things that are beckoning to us with colors, sounds, and smells. What might that taste like, how does this feel, what is that smell? The world is begging us to take a bite out of its apple and experience what is waiting for us. And it’s not some devil tempting us….it’s Creation itself.
And yet, people who are charged with caring for us are nervous, anxious, scared that we might hurt ourselves. They want to protect us, and so they “child proof” our environment, and watch us care-fully, hoping to avoid those bumps and scrapes. And their anxiety is contagious, as we sense their fear, which can restrict our exploration. The intrepid explorer is sentenced to a “play pen” where we can be safe,, so that mommy and daddy can take their mind off of that fear for a needed respite.
Later, we go to school, mixing it up with other children, a disaster waiting to happen. And so, control becomes paramount as just about anything could break loose. Noble teachers man the barricades, trying to bring order to the chaos. The child explorers are taught to sit straight up desks, walk in straight lines, not talk out of turn, color between the lines. Harry Chapin’s song always comes to mind when I think of the loss of the native creativity of kids:
The little boy went first day to school, He got some crayons and he started to draw. He put colors all over the paper, for colors was what he saw.
And the teacher said, “What are you doing, young man?” “I’m painting flowers” he said. She said it’s not time for art, young man. And anyway, flowers are green and red. There’s a time for everything, young man, and a way it should be done. You’ve got to show concern for everyone else, for you’re not the only one.”
And she said, “Flowers are red, young man, and green leaves are green. There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way than the way they always have been.” But the little boy said, “There are so many colors in the rainbow, so many colors in the morning sun, so many colors in a flower, and I see every one.”
The teachers said, “You’re sassy. There’s ways that things should be and you’ll paint flowers the way they are. So repeat after me”
And she said, “Flowers are red, young man, and green leaves are green, There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have me seen.” But the little boy said, “There are so many colors in the rainbow, so many colors in the morning sun, so many colors in a flower and I see every one.”
In writing this piece on curiosity, I rediscovered the power of these lyrics of Harry, as he described the drama that is repeated too often in our education experience. I met him when I booked him into Emory for a World Hunger concert which he performed on a flat-bed in a field that served as a stage. I never will forget his spirit. It was just before he died in an automobile crash. He had been working on the songs for a musical, Cotton Patch Gospel that would open in Atlanta. His brother, Tom, saw it through, and that production had a huge impact on my life and my sense of what the Gospel means in real life. Harry’s playfulness was like that of a child, that native curiosity that takes a fresh look at life. And Harry took that playfulness as he engaged his audience.
Harry was always brimming with hope in spite of his honesty in calling out the rough edges of life. He ends his story/song Flowers Are Red, with the little boy moving to another town, to encounter a teacher who sees things differently, encouraging her students to see all of the glorious colors in the world. And he leaves the question open as to which teacher wins the day and mind of the boy, but you are left hoping the second teacher transforms the boy, returning him to his original spirit of curiosity. How was that educational experience for you? Were you forced into compliance, or were you unleashed to your creativity? For me, it was a mixed bag.
Following Dr. Charlie Palmgren on his thinking about the transformation process of Creative Interchange, curiosity is one of the critical conditions that allow creativity to happen. The intrinsic worth of one’s self along with the according of intrinsic worth to all others is the starting point, the foundation for the creative encounter. Last week, I wrote on trust, which is a basic willingness to lean into the encounter with others, relying on the authentic intent of the other. And now, we add curiosity as another component in the mix. It’s that natural child-like capacity to explore, to discover new options, to be curiously open to what one does not know.
As I have tried to show, the obstacles that life puts in our way, namely our educational system, can rob us of that childlike curiosity, to follow our inquisitive impulse. With self-awareness of that blockage, we can practice the intentional exercise of curiosity. It’s curiosity that propels us to seek the new, to leave the old and comfortable behind for the promise of the new. The work entails freeing oneself from the constrictions that we have accumulated from parents, schools, churches, and cultures. But that’s when the fun begins, rediscovering that childlike awe and wonder in the world that is around us.
This week, we have been presented pictures of our universe by the amazing James Webb Space Telescope, the product of years of careful work by scientists and engineers. The project was spurred by our native curiosity, looking up, and wondering what is out there. And now, for the first time in human history, we have some fantastic photographic images of the vastness of space that make Star Trek and Star Wars look tame. What an opportunity to pause and look afresh as a full moon comes our way, as we look up into the night sky and wonder. What a rich and glorious opportunity to refresh our childlike curiosity!
But, I would remind you, as you are looking up, that wonderfully glorious things are all around us, not light years away, but within reach. The creatures, human and otherwise, are there for observation and interaction. When we join with others in the dance of relationship, there is even an open opportunity for the outbreak of Creative Interchange. And the question that poses itself to us in this Now Moment is simply: are you curious?