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The Wonder Report - October 1, 2021
A World with Octobers
Happy Friday! We made it to the first day of October, my favorite month of the year. In part, because I have an October birthday, but mostly, because as Anne of Green Gables says, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills?” And these maple branches are just getting started!
Well, I’ll talk more about Anne below. Not just because I’m reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables for the first time right now (I know! I know!), but also because Anne embodies our theme for October: curiosity.
I’m glad you’re here to think about it with me this month. Let’s get started.
1. The Art of the Ask
A year and a half ago, I joined the board of directors of group I’d been a member of for only a few months. They asked, I said yes, and the rest is history. But being a leader of something one knows very little about is bound to engender a few questions. And boy do I have questions! At nearly every board meeting, at least one seemingly simple agenda item becomes fodder for an in-depth discussion because I don’t know how things work. Who’s in charge of that? How long does it normally last? What did you do last year? Is it required? When will we know the results? What’s the goal?
Sometimes, my questions results in answers. And given my responsibility to help lead the group, having answers helps. But just as often, my questions elicit more questions. They lead us down a path the other board members hadn’t traveled. They raise issues no one had considered. They make the board meetings longer than necessary.
“I’m sorry I ask so many questions,” I often end up saying. But the truth is, it’s more of a “sorry, not sorry” situation. Yes, I’m sorry that something I asked delayed the meeting and derailed the agenda. But I’m not sorry I asked a question that clearly needed some consideration.
I’m not sorry my curiosity led to discovery.
Curiosity often gets a bad rap. The beloved character Curious George often gets himself into sticky wickets because he follows his own curiosity without restraint. We all recognize the trope of the curious, or nosy, neighbor in popular culture. (I’m looking at you, Gladys Kravitz!) I recently even read a list of Bible verses someone compiled on the dangers of curiosity, where the authors cautioned that curiosity will cause one to compromise beliefs and be led astray. “Curiosity can indeed lead you down a dark path,” they write. (And I hesitate even to link to these because so many of them feel plucked out of context.)
Then of course we’ve also heard what curiosity does to the cat, right? After an admittedly quick Internet search, I found that the original phrase, dating back to British playwrights Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare in the 1500s, was actually “care killed the cat,” though no one can agree on exactly what that means.
“...Helter-skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman” from Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour
“What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care” from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing
Could care mean worry, compassion, sensitivity? Then again we are talking about a cat. What if “care” actually just means interest and what if the saying simply means that too much interest … as in a cat that keeps exploring and snooping and peering … can lead to danger? Or even death? I could see it for the cat, but what about for us?
Interestingly, in the early 1900s, a second phrase was added to the saying. From a newspaper in Titusville, Penn., in 1912:
“Curiosity killed the cat,
But satisfaction brought it back.”
It seems like a happy ending for the curious, at least for the cat. But is true curiosity something that can be so easily satisfied?
Curiosity can certainly lead us down a path toward intrusiveness, temptation, even discontent. We can be clowns who ask meaningless questions, and fools who cause trouble by meddling in other people’s business. But curiosity can also invite us into new conversations; it can accompany us into intriguing investigations. Curiosity gives us the boldness to ask when no one is telling, and it hints at something more when things seems otherwise hidden.
Curiosity is the first cousin of wonder, who knows there’s always more to ask and seek and learn.
Far from an annoyance, curiosity serves as a guiding value in my life, a spiritual practice that embraces the paradox and mystery of God’s kingdom with openness and expectation. And while I can see how the curious might seem precocious, I think they’re courageous, asking questions they know may not have answers.
Like every good quality, curiosity benefits from maturity and moderation and meekness. When the curious are humble, a better conversation is possible. When the curious are thoughtful, an inquiry doesn’t feel like an inquisition. And when the curious are encouraged, so much is possible.
In Philippians 4, Paul invites his readers to trade their cares for prayer—“Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns” (4:6, The Message)—and their anxieties for artistry, filling their “minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (4:8-9, The Message).
This, too, is curiosity, when we ask God to show us more of who He is and imagine all the ways He’s redeeming what’s difficult and tragic in the world.
2. “I Dwell in Possibility” by Emily Dickinson
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
SOURCE: The Poetry Foundation
I wonder … what images in this poem connect to curiosity? How does “possibility” invite curiosity? What role does nature play, both in this poem and in fueling curiosity?
3. Curiosity, Fame, and Who We’re Willing to Follow
I recently read a pair of essays that has me wondering about the connection between curiosity and our culture of fame, particularly the kind of low-level fame that’s available to all of us in the age of social media.
In Chris Hayes’ “On the Internet, We’re Always Famous,” he explores the trajectory of curiosity (or as he calls it, “getting up in people’s business”) in a world where we can know more about strangers than our own family members. And then how do we feel when that same curiosity is turned back on us?
“We have now all been granted a power once reserved for totalitarian governments. A not particularly industrious fourteen-year-old can learn more about a person in a shorter amount of time than a team of K.G.B. agents could have done sixty years ago. The teen could see who you know, where you’ve been, which TV shows you like and don’t like; the gossip that you pass along and your political opinions and bad jokes and feuds; your pets’ names, your cousins’ faces, and your crushes and their favorite haunts. With a bit more work, that teen could get your home address and your current employer. But it’s the ability to access the texture of everyday life that makes this power so awesome. It’s possible to get inside the head of just about anyone who has a presence on the social Web, because chances are they are broadcasting their emotional states in real time to the entire world.” — Chris Hayes
When I read the second essay, “Who We Follow,” by Erin Loechner, I began to realize how the internet, and more specifically social media, has not only turned our curiosity into high-tech voyeurism, but has made every question or inquiry into a potential sales transaction. We’ve commodified curiosity.
“I am sometimes asked why I shy away from social media, from more frequent blog updates. Heck, at the heart of what some might call a career, I was childless and churning out multiple pieces a day, often scattered from end to end of the Internet. So what am I hiding now? Did I not lose the pregnancy weight? (No.) Am I getting old and wrinkly? (Yes.)
“But I think it has more to do with the high cost of participation in a medium entirely void of context. Sure, I get resentful over the fact that advertisers know me better than my spouse, twitchy over the fact that my data is selling for top dollar.
“And yet: my bigger rub is simply the idea that our phones have become a funhouse mirror. Bend it one way and the truth distorts to oblivion.” — Erin Loechner
So what do we do about it? I love Loechner’s advice that sends us right back to curiosity, but a curiosity that’s unplugged, void of algorithmic influence. “We leave phones in drawers. Sing lullabies to the baby. Try to get to where we’re going without Google maps. Host friends for tea. Play Qwirkle. Take a walk, watch an ant. Learn how to fix a bike. Run down the dunes. Slurp popsicles. Wave to the neighbors. Write a letter. Watercolor a dog. Tie-dye socks. Spin the tire swing. Get caught in the rain. Live life with both hands, not one dragging a terrabyte of info,” she writes.
I wonder … how do you think our modern version of fame is shaped by curiosity? Is it more than curiosity? How has your own curiosity changed by living in the Internet age? How do you fight against it? Or do you?
4. Anne of Green Gables
“Isn’t it a wonderful morning? The world looks like something God had just imagined for His own pleasure, doesn’t it?” — Anne of Green Gables
Over the past few weeks, I've heard a few different people mention Anne of Green Gables, and since I've actually never read the book, I decided to give it a try.
I’ve seen it depicted in movies and TV shows multiple times, which is why I knew this would be the perfect book for this season. Not only because, like Anne, I have felt "well in body although considerably rumpled up in spirit" lately, and not simply because I'm also glad that "I live in a world where there are Octobers," but also because I need to be reminded that curiosity and wonder can be the very best companions when life feels otherwise complicated or even "tragical."
“One can’t stay sad very long in such an interesting world, can one?” Anne says after a particularly difficulty season.
It reminds me of what the Psalmist says about the way we can get to know God through his imaginative creation:
“God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.
“Their words aren’t heard,
their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.
“God makes a huge dome
for the sun—a superdome!
The morning sun’s a new husband
leaping from his honeymoon bed,
The daybreaking sun an athlete
racing to the tape.
“That’s how God’s Word vaults across the skies
from sunrise to sunset,
Melting ice, scorching deserts,
warming hearts to faith.”
(Psalm 19:1-6, The Message)
I wonder ... what books or art or music or nature do you turn to when life is hard? What do you learn about yourself there? What do you learn about God?
Thanks again for sharing this time with me. If you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
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Until next time,
P.S. By the way, an essay of mine was just published at The Redbud Post today. It’s not really on-theme with this week’s Wonder Report, but I thought you might be interested in reading it: “Interconnected: What We Gain When Our Relationships Limit Us.”