Curiosity and Fear

The appreciation of art is, more often than not, a communal experience. It brings us together — when we go to museums, to openings, to concerts, to movies or to the ballet or theater. And we argue, and sometimes we fight, but we certainly don’t wage war over artistic expression. I would contend that art and culture are the most important vehicles by which we come to understand one another. They make us curious about that which is different or unfamiliar, and ultimately allow us to accept it, even embrace it. Isn’t it telling that those societies most afraid of “the other” — the Nazis, Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Chinese under Mao — were not able to bring forth any significant cultural artifacts? 

David Zwirner, “Art is How We Justify Our Existence,” New York Times, May 22, 2020

Nora and I talk a lot about the values we most prize in those we love. And we’ve decided that the foremost among them is curiosity. We love people who see something unfamiliar, and whose first response is “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder where that came from? I wonder why it is the way it is? I wonder how it might have been different?” The alternative is people who encounter everything and everyone with judgment, already believing that they know everything that matters. Knowing is the opposite of learning. Propaganda is the opposite of investigation.

Fear makes us stupid, because we close down and stop paying attention, already knowing that “the other” is untrustworthy. Fear is also easy; our reptilian brain has evolved to instantly respond to environmental threats, and we’re still pretty good at it. We have to consciously overcome the fight-or-flight survivalism that is so much a part of any enduring strand of DNA. The difference is that some people DO make the effort to overcome it, and have made that effort long enough that curiosity has become their prevailing reflex.

Those are the folks we like to spend our time with.

I’m fortunate to have had thirteen people sign up for the free fiction course I talked about last time. Thirteen curious people. I can’t wait for us to get started on Monday. For them, and for all the rest of you, I have a poem about the tension between knowing and learning. It was written by the Northern California poet Jim Dodge about twenty years ago. It’s the poem that opens his 2002 book Rain on the River, and it’s called “Learning to Talk.”

Whenever Jason said "beeber" for "beaver"
or "skirl" for "squirrel"
I secretly loved it.
They're better words.
The busy beeber beebing around;
the gray squirrel's tail
like a skirl of smoke along a maple branch.
I never told him he was saying
their names "wrong,"
though I did pronounce them conventionally.
One time he noticed, and explained,
" 'Beeber' is how I say it."
"Great," I told him, "whatever
moves you."
But within a week
he was pronouncing both "properly."
I did my duty
and I'm sorry.
Farewell Beeber and Skirl.
So much beauty lost to understanding.