Being a Person of Curiosity
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
March 5, 2017
It’s Not Easy Being a Unitarian Universalist ~ Charles Magistro
I’m amused by the view that it’s easy to be a Unitarian Universalist. It’s as easy to be a Unitarian Universalist as it is to be persistent, courageous, and curious. It’s as easy to be a Unitarian Universalist as it is to search the murky waters of life without sure charts to guide us or any guarantee that we will find a safe port to put down anchor. It’s as easy to be Unitarian Universalist as it is to overcome the natural fear of the unknown and venture forth with nothing to sustain us save our zest for living and hunger for new experience and knowledge.
Our way in religion is not the way of ease. We are called to be sailors; for many worlds exist waiting to be discovered. And not the least of these worlds are within ourselves. It takes as much persistence, courage, and curiosity to look into our own depths, to come to terms with the twin mysteries of being alive and having to die, to see ourselves in new and larger ways without being dishonest about our limitations as it did for Columbus to sail thousands of miles into an unknown ocean until he found dry land. [this will go well w the closing hymn – or use this reading w the last sermon ]
Ranier Maria Rilke
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
A friend of mine was reminiscing recently about how in the early 90’s her sons, then 14 and 16, would sneak down to the living room after hours, making a bunch of ruckus because they were fascinated by the family’s brand new acquisition: a computer. That reminded me of my own teen years, about 10 years earlier. I was 14, and we had what at that time was the cutting edge, right off the assembly line, first of its kind model of computer laptop. How I was drawn to it & played with it, was so curious about it – the neon orange glow of its little 4 by 4 inch square screen, the incredible logic of its simple commands – 30+ pounds of luggable computer power that I got a big kick out of toying with.
That led me, though I wouldn’t know it at the time, to a 20+ year career tinkering with computers in various forms, with hardware at the start, pulling things apart & putting them back together in a lego-esque way that made my inner 10-year old very happy. Then into computer systems administration, web programming, project management for software deployments – It’s interesting to look back now& see all those different expressions of that core initial curiosity.
It wasn’t until much later – maybe not till last week, actually, that I realize, looking back, that some part of me thought computers held the answers to really big questions. That if you could just build the right software, people would do the right things. Or maybe, I hoped if I could just develop the right program, it would help me do the right thing. Computers have this alluring way of making the just out of reach appear close enough to touch. Of making of the virtual appear real.
But in practice, I found the answers, the big answers, the ones I really wanted, were always just out of reach. While the software I wrote made things work better in the departments of the hospital where I worked – there were issues they just couldn’t touch – systemic issues, misunderstandings, power struggles, money challenges…
And none of the software I’ve written or found, to date, gets me to do the right thing as much as I would like either: my planning software has not saved me from missing things that really matter to me, even my step counter can’t always get me to do what I should. (I know, right?)
I never would have said I was living the questions, but of course I was, we all do, we’re all living questions – big ones and little ones, every day. From our penchant for learning about other planets in other solar systems, to how we can learn to live together on this one. From our questions about whether zinc tablets really will prevent that oncoming cold to the questions we have about how to stay well and live well in our everyday lives. From our questions about how we can help the children we love become the people they can be, to whether your neighbor really is going to buy a Harley Davidson like he’s been threatening, and more importantly, whether he will let you ride it.
We may not always even be aware of whether we’re living big questions or little ones or how they connect to the threads of our lives, we just know we’re drawn in by this or by that and we want to explore or know more.
I found it interesting, in my reading preparing for this theme this month, that our capacity for this kind of life-long curiosity is unique among mammals. Other animals might be innately curious while they are young, but humans have the capacity to stay curious our whole lives.
That natural curiosity would lead us to explore even if we didn’t know why or what for, to simply explore and to try and to test and to learn for their own sake. We can’t always predict what we’re gonna need to know in the future, so we look far & wide and we store it for later.
There’s even a name for how we evolved this trait. It’s called neoteny. Turns out it was helpful, from an evolutionary standpoint, for humans to keep a whole set of childlike characteristics through to adulthood. Things like our playfulness, our capacity to learn, our attachment to each other, and our curiosity. 
Part of what I find so interesting about this is that this set of traits was selected together. And I’ve noticed that these attitudes often do go hand in hand. When I’m feeling curious I’m also often feeling playful and vice versa, and in that frame of mind learning often seems easy. And some of the times I’ve felt closest to other people is when we play, explore & learn together in a spirit of curiosity.
It is a lovely package, that nature has created for us.
And curiosity, is one doorway, to that whole set, a doorway to that playful, learning, connected, state of mind.
We don’t always experience life this way, however, I probably don’t need to tell you.
While we never lose it completely, there is a way our natural, child-like, curiosity gets curtailed as we grow up. We absorb a whole host of messages about how we’re supposed to be and think and what we’re supposed to do – we don’t even always notice the sight-limiting blinders we acquire over time. Don’t even notice the range of topics we’ve lost interest in. Or the number of things we think we fully understand, that we’ve ceased to question or wonder much about. By the time we are adults, we’ve learned a particular set of viewpoints from the people around us or experiences we’ve had and we’re frequently inclined to just stick with that.
Our curiosity may be inherent, but often gets sidelined, we may never lose it, but it’s not what it was.
And in our society these days, where the model is one of: have an opinion, voice it with conviction, and then voice it again (and maybe again and again)… In that environment, leading with curiosity, exploring questions, wondering if maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do, this kind of attitude can feel out of step.
But to be curious, genuinely curious, we have to let go of certainty, let go of conviction, let go of the ways we’ve always perceived things, or how others do things, or the way things have just always been. And that takes courage.
In her meditation, called open eyes, Victoria Safford puts it this way: “The awakened eye is a conscious eye, a willful eye, and brave, because to see things as they are, each in its own truth, will make you very vulnerable.”
That unselfconscious vulnerability, that openness that is characteristic of youth – it’s part and parcel of being able to see without preconceived notions, to be able to be openly curious.
“To see, [in this way],” Safford also writes, “simply to look and to see, is an ethical act and intentional choice; to see, with open eyes, is a spiritual practice and thus a risk, for it can open you to ways of knowing the world and loving it that will lead to inevitable consequences.”
In other words, like young children who learn and grow by what they do and see and experience, by the way they push and pull objects and people and everything around them, adults, too, at any ages, can push & pull and try things and learn and be changed by our curiosity – changed by what we’ve started.
Scott Taylor, author of the spiritual practices you received in the Chimes newsletter this month, takes Safford’s idea of curiosity and consequences in a direction that makes so much sense to me.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of curiosity in terms of consequences” he writes, “But I think Safford’s got it right. There is a type of curiosity that leads to entertainment, that mostly just fills our time. But there is another type that leads to consequences, that leads to us being different.”
I picture a child with open eyes – and how vulnerability& openness can make us accessible, touchable, changeable. I picture an unaffected, childlike curiosity that is honest about what’s right here and where we are in it, in the midst of whatever is going on inside or around us.
There is this strange idea out there that that once we’ve hit 20 or 30 or 50 or 80 that we stop growing, that we are who we are and who we’ll forever be. I’d like to respectfully suggest that while our minds may tell us this, because we hear it over & over in our culture, it’s not, actually, true.
We’re primed, all of us, to reconnect with a child-like sensibility, to look around with fresh eyes, allow ourselves to encounter a consequence – and be willing to live it.
In that same piece on curiosity, Scott Taylor suggests picking a topic that intrigues you, and following it until you encounter a consequence. The point being to go deep, and keep exploring, until the richness of the exploration changes you.
For me, recently, in anticipation of the study leave I took last week, I was imagining the joy of just reading and learning and soaking up the books and magazines and blogs that have been waiting for me. And of exploring around the neighborhood. And Slowing down. And Noticing things. And trying one of those spiritual exercises on curiosity in the Newsletter.
The wisdom of kind eyes was the one that caught my eye. About self-awareness, inviting the wisdom of a trusted friend to tell me what they can see about me that I might not be able to see myself. Maybe you saw this in the newsletter… It suggested asking someone close to you questions like, What makes me come alive? What scares me? What makes me a good friend? How happy am I? Do I fight fair? Things like that.
I happened to be going to visit a friend last weekend, who I’ve known for almost 20 years now. She knows me well. She is kind. And she was game. Turns out she had a lot to say about one of the questions – and while I was hoping she would wax eloquent about whatever gifts she might have thought I had, or what makes me such a great friend, turned out she had a lot to say, instead, about what scares me. (Oh. Great.) Your fear leads you to try to do everything perfectly, she said. It was true. You want to do everything right. Also true. But your fear makes it harder to see *you*, she continued, Harder to reach you. Your fear makes you to try to be invulnerable. Yes. Right. Ironic that doing an exercise in service of an open and vulnerable curiosity, my friend picked up on all the ways I try to avoid it.
She kinda knows how I think – if I just do “this” right, whatever “this” is – then it will all be okay. But, of course, there’s always a next “this” and a next and a next.
If I think about it, there is a way that I really am still living the same questions I did when I was 14 or 20 or 35. How do I live well? How do I both address the “right now right here” things like solving a computer problem or a workflow problem or a scheduling problem? How can I both attend to the things that can be done “perfectly”, that can be “solved” – things that, when doing them, feel like standing on safe and solid ground…. how do I balance that with simply being willing to witness, allow things to unfold, to not know, and be curious?
Maybe what my friend was saying was simply: I wish you could tell that there is room for you – maybe there’s more safety and more room for you, than you can tell.
Or maybe that’s my wish for you – for all of us. Life is challenging. Things get hard. We get anxious, we get frustrated, we get tense.
How can I, how can we, find that childlike place – where we know we’re going to stumble while we learn, but trust in an unfolding future. Where we can know there will be things that are too big for each of us, but we don’t have to fix them all alone. Where we have every reason to be confident in the joy of this moment, where we can remember our playfulness, connect with the people around us and have one heck of a blast of an adventure as we go.
What, in this month of exploring our curiosity, might you encounter? What new way of seeing might you discover? What questions, might you find yourself living with? How might your explorations change you?
We, Unitarian Universalists are called to be persistent, courageous, and curious. We are called to live the questions, to sail the unknown seas, within and outside ourselves, seeking, and sometimes even finding, the lands we seek.
May we be patient while we sail, may we embrace the call of the consequences we encounter, may we be brave, and may we be vulnerable. As we bring open eyes to witness all that is yet unresolved, may we have the will to keep on sailing, connecting with our joyful, playful, childlike curiosity, day by day.