Curiosity and Fear

These two words follow each other on the UU Lent list.  Yesterday’s was curiosity, today’s was fear. Never one to meet daily challenges in a straightforward manner, for me it was never a question of whether I would end up combining two or more day’s words into one post, but when.

Curiosity, on first glance, and especially in today’s parlance, is a good word. As a scientist in training, I learned that curiosity about the natural world is something to be prized. As a science teacher I am told that children have “natural” curiosity. My role is to nurture this quality in my students, rather than killing it–something that formal education in general and teachers in particular are apparently in danger of doing if they aren’t careful. As my daughter and I tour college campuses, the veneration of curiosity, exploration, and discovery are on display at every turn. I don’t think that at this point a college junior who was serious about higher education would, or could, ever admit to being incurious.

Undergraduate theses, bound,  in the Thesis Tower

I generally agree with this view of curiosity. I wrote an undergraduate thesis too, and I was sufficiently undeterred by the experience that I went on to get a PhD. I’m curious about the natural world, and the human-made world. Even now, I sometimes preface questions that might sound off the wall to the listener with “I’m curious . . . ”

But I think there is a reason that these two words have been juxtaposed. An older saying about curiosity that you won’t find in any glossy college brochure: “Curiosity killed the cat,” also comes to mind. Perhaps I just have cats on the brain, since we recently adopted a cat named Sadie. My daughter and I miss her, here on our college trip, but my husband and son have been sending reports and pictures. For brief periods, Sadie has come out from under the dresser where she was hiding, allowed herself to be petted, eaten, and used the litter box. When she’s done, she goes back under the dresser, though.

It’s a gradual process. Sadie is an adult cat, and is shy. A confinement period of 2 weeks or more is suggested and expected for an adult cat to get used to a new home. “Don’t drag her out of her hiding place,” we were told. “Wait until she comes voluntarily.” We’re only 3 days in. That she’s coming out on her own, even for brief periods, is a good sign. Her curiosity is overcoming her fear.

With cats, most people nowadays seem to understand that a confinement period for them is normal, even beneficial. It probably took years or even decades of research for that message to become mainstream. With people, I still don’t think it has. People’s fear has a very bad rap. Signs reading, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” are up all over. I’ve seen several of these signs in the past 2 days alone.

The feelings that this sentiment evokes–that fear is something to be dismissed, ignored, eradicated, that we are better off without it– are complex. Sure, I want my daughter to be excited about college rather than fearful. I want her to talk to everyone who has made the kind offer to speak with her about her college choices. I want her to ask questions. I want her “natural curiosity” to overcome her reticence. Life seems simplistically like it would be so much easier, so much better, if nobody was ever afraid.

But the fact is, my daughter has always been cautious and slow to warm up, ever since she was a toddler and these sorts of temperamental observations could be made. There has always been some fear. And, like daughter, like mother. Like a cat, I hated being pushed beyond my comfort zone rather than stepping out voluntarily, I hated being dragged out from under the metaphorical dresser before I was ready. Why would it be different now? And perhaps more importantly, why should it be?

My belief now is that fear and curiosity are each other’s shadows; two sides to the same coin. Fear isn’t something to simply eradicate, talk yourself out of, or pretend isn’t there. The more interesting question may be, “what are you going to do, even though you are afraid?”

9 thoughts on “Curiosity and Fear”

  1. Fascinating juxtaposition, Karen, and great perceptions on your part. Got me thinking that curiosity, fear and the balance between them might be the most important factors for people around your daughter’s age — what to be curious about, what to be afraid of, and how much of each.

    My younger son, Carl, spent almost three months after high-school graduation in an Outward-Bound type program with a lot of gestalt-psychology-type feedback. He was challenged, made aware of his fears, and how he handled challenges and fears. I found myself wishing that everyone went through a program like that around his age.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think a class like that would have been useful for me too as a teen and young adult (maybe even now). I’m all for thoughtfully handling challenges and fears.

      But I think current society has an anti-fear bias that isn’t entirely healthy. In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, the power of introverts, she has a section on “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) and makes a good case that complete disdain and disregard for FUD, and for the type of person who tends to experience it, removes important safeguards and can contribute to disasters like the Wall Street crash.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it works both ways. We’re over-fearful about things like the possibility of being harmed by violent criminals or terrorists, or having our children molested or kidnapped. But we’re ridiculous under-fearful about going into debt and taking financial risks — the sorts of things that contributed to the meltdown.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes. And nowhere is that paradox more evident than with parenting. The culture is over-fearful about things like stranger danger and leaving children unattended even for a minute, but under-fearful about the consequences of sleep- and play-deprivation.

        Liked by 3 people

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