2018-12-13

Justice on Earth

A Charlie Brown Christmas was aired on ABC on Thu Dec 6 this year. Perhaps some of you saw it. I haven’t seen it in years, but I watched it every year when I was a kid – and I remember it well. Charlie Brown and that dinky little tree he gets – the Vince Guaraldi music. And the speech Linus gives to say what Christmas is all. That recitation was strangely moving to me. I didn’t believe it any more than I believed in Santa Claus, but Linus’ voice speaking those words of Elizabethan English was a wonder. I was mesmerized.

Charlie Brown says: "I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

Linus says: "Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about."

The audio goes silent for an unheard-of 7 seconds while we watch Linus walk out to the middle of the stage. "Lights please,” he says, and a spotlight forms on Linus while the rest of the stage darkens.
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.
Then the audio goes dead silent again, this time for 10 seconds, as we watch Linus pick up his blanket and walk back over to Charlie Brown, where he says, “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”



On earth, peace, good will toward men. Our question today is: What are your hopes for peace and justice in the new year, and how will those hopes affect your life?

The first year A Charlie Brown Christmas aired was 1965 – I was 7 years old. In 1972, when I was 13, the Ms. Magazine cover of the December issue was filled with the large-print words, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to People.” So I learned to say it that way. Later, I’d say, "Peace on Earth, good will to all."

Linus was reciting from the Gospel of Luke, King James Version. Later I learned that no original copies of Luke have been preserved. The oldest surviving documents we have are third-generation copies of copies, with no two completely identical. Some of them say, “on earth, peace, goodwill toward people.” Others say, “on earth, peace toward people of goodwill.” It’s the difference between saying “Peace for everybody, good will for everybody” and saying, “peace for the good people.” The New Revised Standard Version gives, “On earth peace among those whom God favors” – with a footnote that “other ancient authorities read ‘peace, goodwill among people.”

At the time Luke wrote his gospel, it was about a century after the birth of Jesus – a century after that night that he wrote that angels proclaimed to shepherds, “peace on earth.” He already knew it hadn’t happened. Now it’s been over 2000 years. How’s that “Peace on Earth” thing working out for us?

Unitarians have a tradition of noticing that we haven’t lived up to the angelic promise. In 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the Carol, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." He noticed that the angels had sung about peace on earth, but we had failed to make peace happen.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
Contrast that with "Angels We Have Heard on High," also written in the mid-19th century, but by a Catholic bishop. It is pure triumph and celebration, stretching "Gloria" over 18 bouncy syllables. Quite different from the Unitarian attention to the unfulfilledness of the promise. And Edmund Hamilton Sears was no outlier among Unitarians. The Unitarian poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's mid-19th-century carol, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day" also noticed the disconnect between the angelic promise and the earthly reality.
"For hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
good will to men,"
wrote Longfellow.

So I challenge you, my fellow UUs, and challenge myself, to take the words, "Peace on Earth," to heart, to reflect on what we've done in the past year to build peace, and what we will commit to do in 2019, and I do so standing in a long tradition. We do not merely stand on the shoulders of giants -- we are carried by them. We are born aloft and forward by the doings and sufferings of 200 years of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists thinking hard and living passionately the quest to love this world, ourselves, and each other as we ought to be loved.

This year, as we come again to the Christmas season, and once more reflect on the mythic tale penned by an unknown author we call Luke and voiced by child actor Chris Shea as the cartoon character Linus, we cannot avoid noticing that another year is coming to its close, and we have still not found our way to hush the noise of battle strife – have still not harked to what the herald angels sang.

But we could. We know we could, because, very slowly, we are. Yes, the horrors continue. Fighting in Yemen is leading to mass starvation. The civil unrest in Haiti, the fighting in Syria. Even with all that, it’s better than it has been.

Archeologists estimate that in many past societies, from pre-historic times up to the birth of Jesus, more than 10% of deaths were the result of one person killing another. Now it’s a lot less. Scientific American last year reported:
“Most scholars agree the percentage of people who die violent war-related deaths has plummeted through history; and that proportionally violent deaths decline as populations become increasingly large and organized.”
The challenge to us is to take the words, "Peace on Earth," to heart. Let us attend, as well, to Justice on Earth, for peace and justice are interdependent. There will be no peace without justice. This is because human beings systemically denied justice will agitate for it, including turning to violence when there is no other recourse. It’s also true that there will be no justice without peace. This is because for human beings under attack focus on defending themselves, not on fairness to others. Only a relatively stable regime under relatively peaceful conditions can turn its attention to improving its justice. I take this not as a chicken-and-egg insoluble dilemma, but as indicating the need to gradually build both at the same time.

The herald angels didn’t specifically mention justice. They did, per some versions of the Gospel of Luke, say "good will to all." I want to be clear that goodwill is not justice. Good will is better than ill will -- usually -- but good will is not enough. You can have the best intent in the world, but if you're negligent, you're still at fault. Citing good intentions doesn't get us off the hook for harm we've done, howsoever inadvertently. I was reminded of this when I heard Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi apologize recently. She had praised a supporter by saying, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."

The words evoked her state's sordid history with lynching -- and did so in the context of a campaign in which her opponent was a black man.
Her apology:
"For anyone who was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements."
My point isn’t to single out one politician for criticism. She is merely one prominent and recent example of the tendency to think that citing good intentions should absolve us of the harm we’ve done.

Sen. Hyde-Smith was negligent -- not in a criminal way, I don’t think, but she committed a moral version of negligence. Either she wasn’t paying attention enough to know what words cause harm in the context of America's past and present, or she knew but didn't care. Either way, she was negligent. The apology that I’d wished I’d heard would have gone something like: “My words were carelessly negligent of the harm they could and did do, and I’m sorry.”

The concept of negligence includes that no harm was intended, so by copping to negligence, one is still conveying that one didn’t mean it – but – and this is the important part – one is naming and owning to a wrong rather than implying that there was no wrong at all.

I’ve grown attuned to the ways people cite their intentions – their good will. Over and over, I notice white people excusing themselves by citing their intentions. It's infuriating how often this tactic is used, and how it's almost always white people expecting absolution on the basis of their intentions. The dominant US culture rarely wonders what a black person's intent might be. Peace on Earth depends on Justice on Earth, and "Goodwill among people" does not achieve justice.

“Justice on Earth,” as it happens is the title of this year’s Unitarian Universalist Common Read. Each year our Unitarian Universalist Association selects a book recommended for all Unitarian Universalists across the country to read. Our Common Read for 2018-19 is Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment. In essays from 14 different Unitarian Universalist authors, the book addresses our tendency to form justice silos. That is, we approach the different issues where justice is needed as if they weren’t interconnected, as if each injustice were a separate and distinct problem having no effect on other problems.

There’s economic justice – the need to address income inequality. There’s racial justice – the need to address the systemic ways that people of color continue to face discrimination. There’s the need to protect the environment. There’s the need protect women’s autonomy and choice, end sexual harassment and assault, and end gender-based discrimination. There’s the need to advance protections and respect for LGBTQ people. If we treat these as separate silos of concern, then they are in competition with one another – competing for our time, attention, and resources. We will wrangle about, “My issue is more important than your issue.”

But there’s one issue: and that’s the ideology of supremacy, the ideology that values men over women, whites over what people of color, straight and cis-gendered over LGBTQ. It’s an ideology of dominance that puts certain categories outside of concern and respect, that treats them as means only, not as ends in themselves.

That ideology extends to the Earth itself: we treat it as a means only, a heap of resources to be exploited, and not as an end in itself. We treat nonhuman animals as means only, not as ends in themselves. Your "door in" might be Race issues, or environment, or income inequality, or LGBTQ, or reproductive rights, or animal advocacy, but once you get in, it’s helpful to understand that there is a single shared vision at the root of all these issues, if we properly understand them.

This root is a vision of world without domination – where everyone’s needs are on the table, where all beings are accorded concern and respect, where no person is a means only, no animal is a means only, no life form is a means only -- ultimately no mountain or river or grain of sand is a means only – but is valued for what it is as an end in itself.

Justice on Earth explores, in particular, the ways income and race intertwine with environmental issues. Those on the margins are most affected by climate disasters. Those on the margins are most affected by environmental toxins because we deliberately locate our waste dumps and polluting facilities closer to areas where people of color and poorer folk live. So environmental issues are racial issues, and are income inequality issues.

Over thirty years ago, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice undertook an extensive study of Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. They found that:
Communities with a commercial hazardous waste facility averaged 24% minority. Even more striking, communities with two or more [commercial hazardous waste] facilities -- or one of the nation's five largest landfills – averaged 38% minority. Meanwhile communities with no such facility averaged just 12% minority.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan that broke into national news a few years ago is another example. If I may remember with you today some key details of that story:

Flint, Michigan has just under 100,000 people, 41% poor and 57% African-American. In 2014, Michigan state authorities, to save money, switched the water supply of Flint, MI, from Lake Huron to the Flint River, known for its pollution. Almost immediately, boil advisories had to be issued because fecal coliform bacteria was flowing into the homes of Flint. Because the Flint River is polluted to begin with, water from that river is corrosive. Flint River water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. Treatment with anti-corrosive agents would go a long way to address that, and federal law requires such treatment. But the state Department of Environmental Quality violated that federal law and simply didn’t treat Flint’s water with anti-corrosive agents.So this corrosive water, unmitigated in its corrosion, began flowing to Flint.
It was coming in through aging pipes, and because it was so corrosive, it leached lead out of the pipes. Lead content in the drinking and bathing water in Flint shot so high it met the EPA’s definition of "toxic waste." In fairness to the state of Michigan, as fair as we can be, the switch to the Flint River was always meant as a temporary measure for two years while a new pipeline from Lake Huron was being constructed.
OK, good to note. But, still! It is not OK for the water in people’s homes to be toxic waste for two years – or even for one minute. Is there any doubt that what happened to Flint would never have happened to a predominantly middle-class and white city?
“African Americans making $50,000 to $60,000 per year are much more likely to live in a polluted environment than poor white families making just $10,000 per year.” (Paula Cole Jones, Justice on Earth).
These examples – and there are many more -- show us the interconnections between environment, race, and poverty.

As Manish Mishra-Marzetti writes in Justice on Earth:
“Lack of economic opportunity is tied to the quality of local schools and the health impacts of pollution; the inability to access clean water and healthy food directly impacts one’s ability to function in school or at work; and the intentional siting of power plants and waste facilities away from wealthier and whiter communities impacts local housing prices, affects health, and points toward endemic, structural racism. It is all linked; no single piece stands in isolation.”
Jennifer Nordstrom’s essay in the book notes that
“communities of color were exploited and poisoned through the entire nuclear fuel cycle: from uranium mining on Indigenous land and the contamination of surrounding Indigenous, Chicano, and Latinx communities to nuclear waste storage in communities of color.”
Militarism, colonialism, racism, and the environmental degradation are interrelated and mutually support each other.

And just as environmental problems – the pollution, and the climate change – disproportionately affect the poor and people of color, environmental protections offer us opportunities for addressing income inequality. Paula Cole Jones’ essay reminds us that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 30s “provided resources for renewing the land and putting people back to work. There was a great deal of environmental activity across the country, including the creation of the Civil Conservation Corps.”

Government programs can create Green Jobs that especially recruit among minority communities. Working for this requires seeing the interconnections between issues – seeing that they all flow from the same root, and coming together to address that root, rather than fragmenting ourselves into discrete silos of concern.

There is a certain theological irony in Unitarians coming around to this view – a view that many nonUnitarian thinkers and writers have been fleshing out for some years – this view of all justice issues as interconnected, as all based in conceptions of supremacy and dominance.
We Unitarians, you’ll remember, got our name from criticizing the doctrine of the Trinity. Unitarian beginnings some 250 years ago in this country lay in rejection of Trinitarian Orthodoxy that said God is one and three at the same time. The Athansian Creed says: “there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.” One essence, in three persons. The first Unitarians were Christians who said this part makes no sense.

A couple centuries later, when it comes to justice, we are again Trinitarian – or, rather, not trinitarian but multi-tarian. The is one injustice to people of color, another to the Earth itself, another to LGBTQ folk, another to women, another to the poor, another to nonhuman animals. But the justicehead for people of color, for the Earth, for LGBTQ, women, the poor, and nonhuman animals is one – “the glory equal and the majesty coeternal,” we might add.

There is one essence of justice – the ending of all forms of supremacy and domination – but that essence presents in multiple “persons”: in the multiple forms that oppression takes.

Here at CUUC, we have a number of Social Justice Teams, and this is central to our mission – we’re here to foster compassion and understanding and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. If you’re not on one of our Social Justice Teams, I hope you’ll consider joining one.
My goal is 100% of the members on some Social Justice Team. What I’m saying today is that our Social Justice Teams each need to think about their interconnections with the others. Join the team – the “person” of justice that most resonates with you – but don’t silo there. Remember that there is one essence of justice uniting the various “persons” – and that all the teams here are working together for the same one thing.

Let us then increase our communication among the different teams, find joint projects if possible, and even when we are working on separate projects, to do so in a way that is conscious of the relationship to all the other issues.

So here again is our question: What are your hopes for peace and justice in the new year, and how will those hopes affect your life?

From Justice on Earth, including Justice to the Earth, we get to Peace on Earth. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.


2018-12-08

Curiosity, the Bad Kind

Three Curiosities, part 3

The first curiosity (HERE) manifests as love of learning. The second (HERE) manifests as empathy. The third is curiosities that do more harm than good.

3. The Curiosity We're Better Off Without

There are some things better not inquired into. Here's an example from Walt Whitman, and I'm not sure I agree with him, but I can see why he might say what he does. In a part of "Song of Myself," he writes:
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
It seems to me that if he is looking at things and seeing God in all of them, then he is being curious. He's paying attention, which is the crux of curiosity.

But I can kind of see his point. If we're thinking of curiosity as wanting to know enduring truths, Whitman is saying we don't need to always be curious that way. Pay attention to what's right there in front of your face: the ephemeral rather than the forever. That's all the God you need to know about. You don't need to investigate and examine abstruse theologies and determine which one you think is true. The divine is not about amassing a list of true sentences you memorize. It's about finding letters from God everywhere, and leaving them as you find them. OK, I get that. I'm a person who has spent most of my life being curious about God -- curious about the concept of God, how it works, the different things the concept has meant through history. But, at the end of the day, Whitman is telling me, it's good to be able to set aside those intellectual inquiries and simply feel the holiness of the presence surrounding me right now.

Whatever your feeling about the propriety of curiosity about God, there is a type of curiosity that we just don't need. Being nosy, prying into business that isn't ours, chasing after gossip -- this is the sort of curiosity that doesn't do anybody any good. Here are some popular sayings that make the point:
  • "If it doesn't involve you, it shouldn't concern you."
  • “Everything in life is easier when you don't concern yourself with what everybody else is doing.”
  • “Don't worry about what I'm doing. Worry about why you're worried about what I'm doing.”
  • "Every time you feel yourself getting pulled into other people's nonsense, repeat these words: not my circus, not my monkeys."
People have privacy rights. We all need to have aspects of our lives that are off limits to public scrutiny.

The gossipy, prying kind of curiosity is usually in support of judgmentalism. That's what gossip is: the passing along of such information as supports and encourages a negative judgment about someone. The judgment of others reflects anxiety we feel about how others may be judging us -- (and how, remembering that "self" is "generalized other," as George Herbert Mead said, we judge ourselves). Trying to manage our anxiety by judging others, we thus perpetuate the anxiety. If you can remember Curiosity #2 -- use curiosity as a replacement for judgmentalism, not as a means for judging -- then you'll have an easier time letting go of the urge to pry.

And if your curiosity about someone else's private affairs really is totally nonjudgmental, then refer to Curiosity #1: the love of learning. The libraries and bookstores are full of more interesting and worthwhile things to read and learn about. You'll never get even a thousandth of the way through all the books worth reading. There are so many better ways to direct a love of learning -- and they don't disrupt relationships the way that invading privacy does.

Appreciate people. See them in their best light. Use curiosity to help with that, rather than to hinder it.
Bob fell off the wagon.
Susan lost her job.
Sally's Dan is flunking out.
That Keith is such a slob.

Sympathies and judgment
Served up over tea.
So nice to not have those folks' faults, but
What do they say of me?

So nice to not have faults like those
Except I fear I do.
I share in all those named above
And several others too.

Anxiety is thus sustained,
Throughout the system felt.
Someone, perhaps, must do that job,
But maybe someone else.
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See also:
Part 1: Curiosity and the Love of Learning
Part 2: More Curiosity, Less Judgment

2018-12-06

More Curiosity, Less Judgment

Three Curiosities, part 2

The first curiosity (HERE) manifests as love of learning. The second manifests as empathy.

2. Curiosity as Antidote to Judgmentalism

There's a kind of curiosity that is paying attention particularly to other people -- the living, breathing ones with whom you interact -- and being curious about them -- their feelings and needs. This is the kind of curiosity that the business consultants are talking about when they come in to teach about being curious. They aren't recommending that workers spend more time watching documentaries or reading about the House of Plantagenet. They're saying be curious instead of judgmental about the people around you: co-workers, and clients or customers -- and curious about yourself.

This is indeed a powerful use of curiosity.
"When you’re curious, you forget to be afraid. When you’re curious, you’re less attached to your ego and getting things right. When you’re curious, you’re open to new ideas and possibilities." (Sandra Possing)
Become the brilliant detective of your own life!

The opposite of this sort of curiosity is judging.
"When you default to judging things, you contract. You shut yourself off to the limitless possibilities all around you. It may feel good temporarily, because it makes you feel superior, which feeds the ego. But, in the long run it just breeds negativity." (Sandra Possing)
A judging mind obscures a broader, more realistic picture of self and others. This leads to greater emotional suffering in the form of low self-esteem, anxiety, irritability, and depression.
"Unfortunately, negative evaluation of self and others is quite pervasive in our culture here in the United States; for many, it’s their default way of relating to the world. But, the good news is that, with some practice, it’s possible to shift thought patterns in a more positive and rational direction, by cultivating more curiosity, rather than judgment." (Kim Pratt)
Of course, being discerning, thoughtful, reflective, and wise are good things. Judgmentalism, however, is the prioritizing of evaluation -- good or bad, better or worse, liked or disliked -- over open presence to and acceptance of what is.

On occasion, some evaluation is called for, but these occasions are a lot rarer than we seem to think. Living in "should" instead of "is" is a recipe for discontent. Curiosity, on the other hand, imparts the clarity of a more rational view and fosters inner peace and better emotional and interpersonal functioning. Curiosity helps us tap into compassion and kindness -- for oneself and others. When we have greater understanding and compassion, we're
"we’re smarter human beings that can take more skillful internal (self-talk) and external action." (Kim Pratt)
In fact, you won't even learn very much about the House of Plantagenet if your main focus is on blaming Henry VI instead of understanding the historical forces at work.

So here's a good exercise for moving out of judgment into curiosity. At the end of the day, write down the most judgmental thought you had that day. The write some related more curious thoughts about that.

Suppose you found yourself self-judging: "I'm not smart enough to do well on that exam." Write that down. Then think of some ways to be curious about that subject. "I wonder what will actually happen when I take the test. I wonder what I'll learn from preparing for this exam. Where did my drop in confidence come from? What factors help me feel more confident? What are some study and preparation strategies I could look into?"

Or suppose you saw a Mom who brought her kids to story time at the library, and while the other parents there were engaging with the story along with their kids, this one was off to the side looking at her phone. Suppose you had the judgmental thought: "Look at her! She's not even paying attention to her kids! What's so important on her phone that she has to look at it right this second?" Write that down. Then think of some ways to be curious about that subject. "Could she be waiting for an important email from a family member or friend? Is she using he phone to search for a new job? Did she have an incredibly rough morning, and just needs to zone out for a few minutes while her kids are in a safe environment? Maybe she talked over with her kids that it was time for them to exercise just a little bit of their own responsibility for paying attention by themselves. Is it any of my business if she's looking at a gossip website or texting her friends?"

The point here is not to satisfy the curiosity, but to merely think of possible explanations. Perhaps you've heard the slogan, "Assume best possible motive." That's an excellent way to approach people and situations. The problem is that we're often not very good at doing it. I don't mean that we forget to assume best possible motive, I mean that our imaginations get so clouded over by judgment that even the best possible motive that we can imagine isn't a very good motive. In order to assume better possible motives, we have to be able to imagine better possible motives -- and that requires exercising and strengthening our imagination. Doing this exercise at the end of every day for a month will help expand your capacity to imagine reasonable explanations for why good people would behave in the ways that you had an impulse to judge.

Every time a feeling of annoyance, irritation, impatience, or anger arises, right there, I've got two questions to be curious about:
  1. About the person that is the immediate trigger of my feeling, what conditions would lead a person to act that way -- and, in those conditions, what are they feeling and needing?
  2. What's going on in me that would cause me to have the reaction I'm having?
When judgmentalism catches you, imagining possible answers to these two questions is typically enough to open you to a more rational, peaceful perspective. Often, the first step of an investigation is to imagine possible answers to the question. You don't need to reach satisfaction that you've ascertained the truth of the matter -- but you do need curiosity to spur you to this first step.

Next: The Curiosity We're Better Off Without

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See next: Part 3: Curiosity, the Bad Kind
See also: Part 1: Curiosity and the Love of Learning

2018-12-05

Curiosity and the Love of Learning

Three Curiosities, part 1

Curiosity killed the cat, the saying goes. Shakespeare didn’t say that. In Much Ado about Nothing, there’s a line that care killed a cat – meaning worry or sorrow. The earliest known appearance of the phrase "curiosity killed a cat," replacing Shakespeare's "care" with "curiosity," is in an 1868 newspaper. It must have been in use before then, since by 1873 “curiosity killed the cat” was included in a handbook of proverbs.

The image conjured up is of a cat – a naturally curious animal – investigating something and getting into fatal trouble from messing around in something better left alone. The idea is to warn us about dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. Leave well enough alone. But that’s often not an option. Life is ever moving on, and keeping up with it means investigating.

By the 20th-century, it seems some folks were getting tired of being warned against investigation and experimentation. A newspaper in 1905 added a phrase: “Curiosity killed a cat, but it came back.” The cat, you see, is such a useful metaphor because not only is it a animal whose curiosity is particularly obvious to humans, but it is also said to have nine lives – giving proponents this natural rejoinder: it may have been killed, but it comes back anyway.

It wasn’t until 1912 that the earliest know inclusion of the word “satisfaction” appears: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” The new proverb is a push-back against the “leave well enough alone” argument. There may be risks from investigating into the unknown, but the satisfaction of finding out new things is so powerful that it will resurrect the dead.

And indeed curiosity does make us feel alive, resurrected from the walking death of not investigating what’s going on, or, anything.

Curiosity has been the subject of a lot of psychology research lately. We’re confirming that curiosity makes the mind active instead of passive, makes us observant of new ideas, opens up new worlds and possibilities, and brings excitement into life. Curiosity might kill you – but you won’t die bored.

And, anyway, as best as we can determine, the incurious also die – and probably at about the same average age. Possibly younger, on the principle that active engaged people are healthier, though that hasn't been established.

The business world seems to have started paying attention to the virtue of curiosity. A popular book a couple years ago was called The Power of Curiosity: How to Have Real Conversations that create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding. And I discovered that there is now such a thing as "The Curiosity Institute" which consults with businesses to help workers improve communication skills by reducing reactivity and increasing engagement through: curiosity.

So that’s great. Yay for curiosity. As Bill Maher said, “Curious people are interesting people; I wonder why that is.”

In my own wonderings, it seems to me there are three kinds of curiosity to look at.

1. Love of Learning

First, there’s simply loving to learn. Wanting to know stuff. These are the folks who read nonfiction books voraciously and magazines like Scientific American. They go to museums. Their taste in films runs toward the documentaries. They are curious to know about medieval Chinese history, or the life and times of Sigmund Freud, or the basis of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or how quantum entanglement works, or why people are having less sex these days. They just want to know.

I can relate to that. I was a guy who would not stop going to school – I just loved sitting in graduate seminars, doing the reading, hashing over sophisticated concepts. I didn’t stop going to school until I was well into my 30s and had five college degrees in four different fields. I also had, by that time, an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, and really couldn’t put off any longer that curiously unreal-to-me world that people insist on calling “the real world.” And even that wasn’t the end of it, because I went back to seminary in my 40s – to learn some more interesting stuff.

There are a couple of pitfalls in this sort of pursuit of knowledge, but in my experience falling into either is relatively uncommon. The first is the danger of merely amassing factoids. The goal of education and learning, of course, is not merely to be able to recite long lists of tidbits of information, or even to become a champion of trivial pursuit or quiz shows. The point of the information is the meaning made of it – the integrating the separate factoids together into an overall, more-or-less coherent, yet very detailed, sense of how things are. And in my experience, this is indeed what people who really want to know stuff do: they but it together in meaning-making ways.

The second pitfall of loving to know stuff is the lure of thinking that you do. If you become certain that what you’ve found out is the permanent truth, and now that you know it, you will never have to revise that knowledge – that’s a problem. What begins in curiosity leads to knowledge, which then kills the curiosity. But curiosity shouldn’t be like hunger. The aim of hunger of is to get you to eat so you won’t be hungry anymore. The aim of curiosity is not so you find out stuff and aren’t curious anymore. The true aim of curiosity is to always be learning, but never knowing -- full of possible explanations but always looking for new ways to understand anything, or new nuances to add to one’s understanding – always holding what has been learned as a maybe-useful-maybe-not tool for approaching what is unique in the given situation.

Knowledge can become an excuse to not pay attention. You say, “I had a botany class, I know about oak trees, that’s an oak tree, don’t need to look at it any further. I know what needs to be known – I’ve got my category for the object, and don’t need to investigate this object.” The true botanist, instead, uses knowledge of oak trees to frame and focus the way she looks and curiously investigates the particular uniqueness of the oak tree in front of her.

If we use knowledge of general truths as an escape from curiously engaging with the unique particulars we face, that’s a pitfall. Paying attention to the unique particulars of the situation you’re in right then, right there is the segue into the second kind of curiosity.

Next: Curiosity #2

This is part 1 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See next: Part 2: More Curiosity, Less Judgment
Part 3: Curiosity, the Bad Kind