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

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