Curiosity versus Fear


Curiosity, Charleston, South Carolina (2016)

My daughter came home from school a few months ago and reported that a classmate’s mother “didn’t like her.”


“[Classmate] said his mom doesn’t like me,” she said. I remember he words exactly, along with the puzzling expression she carried.


“I’m sorry, Little One,” I said. “Not everyone has to like everyone, though.” I refrained from elaborating. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”


“It’s because I said that girls can marry girls and boys can marry boys,” she continued. “[Classmate] said they couldn’t, and I said, ‘Of COURSE they can.’”


That’s my girl.


“You’re totally right,” I told her. “But not everybody agrees with that, even though it’s right and it’s the law.”


“And the thing is,” I continued, “Not everyone has to agree with everything. Lots of people disagree about lots of different things. The trick, though, is to always be respectful and kind of different beliefs, even if they are different from yours. As long as you do that, you’ll be okay.”


Mother Emanuel, Charleston, South Carolina (2016)

Mother Emanuel, Charleston, South Carolina (2016)

I couldn’t help but recall that conversation when I heard the tragic news from Orlando last week. We were in Charleston at the time, watching the city prepare to commemorate the one-year anniversary of another tragedy motivated by hate and intolerance. And fear.


In a shop on Queen Street there, I snapped a picture of the store’s window display: “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.”


Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we didn’t fear people who disagree with us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we instead extended curiosity to know the human behind the beliefs, or the behavior, or the rhetoric? Wouldn’t it be great to distinguish between a fact and a belief? It is a fact that anyone can marry in this country. It is a fact that love is love. It is a belief that those laws are good. It is also a belief that those laws are not so good. But beliefs don’t change facts. And one person’s beliefs cannot and should not be imposed on anyone else.


Our children will learn about beliefs that challenge those we hold dear. Our children will learn that what we tell them to be true is true… But that “true” and “false” are sometimes oversimplifications.


Instead of responding with fear, I wish the classmate’s mother had responded differently. I wish she knew she was raising an incredible child, who wasn’t afraid to ask questions and open difficult conversations. I wish she wasn’t afraid to share with him that not everyone holds the beliefs she holds, instead of dismissing a challenger to those beliefs so callously.


There is empowerment in empathy and kindness. There is empowerment in curiosity.


We learn quickly that our children are their own people, that what we say and do holds tremendous weight, but that it will be up to them to evolve into the people they will become.


My father shares a story from my days as a toddler. Apparently, I loved moving a blue chair wherever I needed it to be. He would leave the living room and return to stumble into the chair I had left out. He would search for it exactly where he left it, only to discover I had moved it.


Our kids are their own people. They will manipulate their world, they will change it for the better, and they’ll learn to think of others—not leaving a chair in a pathway—as their brains develop in that direction.


But we have to help them get there. Not with fear, but instead with confidence in our own parenting abilities. We are incredible parents. It’s okay if our kids know the world is full of incredible parents who all only want the best for their kids. Even if other people’s version of “the best” differs from our own. Even if the world’s version of “the best” differs from our own.


It’s a good thing to raise a toddler who isn’t afraid to take action, even if that action is slightly inconvenient. It’s a good thing to raise a kindergartener who asks questions when he encounters something that doesn’t align with what he has been told. That’s a great thing. Let’s not diminish that greatness by letting our own fears squelch someone else’s curiosity.


I can’t help but wonder if things would be different if any of the shooters in any of these horrible tragedies were more curious and less afraid. If they were confident enough in themselves to not feel the need to eliminate anyone who disagreed with them. If they embraced the differences in our country and our world. If they understood that is exactly these differences that make our country great, rather than believing those differences take away from its greatness. If they were unable to access military-grade weaponry. If it took a little more time and a lot more effort to arm oneself.


If their parents had said, “Not everyone has to agree” instead of “I don’t like her.”



Beautiful Distractions

Andy Rash from the Times

Andy Rash from the Times

Small confession: I was interrupted three times during the first paragraphs of Verena von Pfetten’s piece in the Times last month about—you guessed it—being distracted.


Twice my daughter asked me to refill her water gun for an ongoing arms race with the neighbors. Once my dog brought his ball to me, prompting me to add more treats. I am, after all, well trained.


By the time I returned to the second paragraph, to resume where I left off, my coffee was cold and I couldn’t remember what I had read.


I have a memory etched into my brain. I was in college, visiting my parents for a long weekend with nothing planned, the kind of extended relaxing time that unrolls sporadically like an uneven sphere coasting down an incline. I was sitting in the front room, curled in a swivel chair reading A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini. This was during a time in my life when I didn’t simply fall asleep any time I started to read, when a moment of relaxation actually meant just that, and I was so enveloped in the story, I didn’t notice my mom enter the room. I didn’t notice her, in fact, until she touched my shoulder and I jumped countable inches in the air, certain that the hand belonged to Mariam’s evil husband.


Uninterrupted time is a luxury. Distraction-free living is a luxury. It is meant for certain points in our lives. I’m not in one of those.


I’ve never been one to multi-task well. I rarely listen to music as I work, except for the occasional classical collection. I never seek television or radio to play while I complete tasks as “background noise.” Even a baseball game calls my attention away from whatever it is I am doing. I find it insufferable to look at my phone while holding a conversation, even if I’m seeking information that will prove a point. I’d rather engage than confirm.


Naturally, I consider myself a superior human because of this. And I really wanted to read von Pfetten’s article to confirm my suspicions. But I kept getting distracted.


Some distractions are completely out of our control: The water gun arms race, the dog whose primary motivation is peanut-butter flavored treats, the hour my husband returns from work. But it doesn’t stop there: The phone call from a panicking client with a “quick question” that is rarely quick. (It’s also rarely the reason for the call; usually it’s something deeper.) The student who “pops by” my office hoping for a quick moment. The colleague who asks if I’ve “got a sec” to talk through a problem.


At some point these distractions will end. I’ll become seasoned enough that my point of view will no longer be helpful or relevant to students or colleagues. The children around us will no longer need our support or validation. The dog will be too tired to request peanut butter treats. Then I’ll be able to read an article, or a book, or a tome without interruptions.


That’s when I’ll get back to von Pfetten’s article. In the meantime, it remains unread, at least by me.


Instead of reading it, I reheated my coffee and then joined my daughter outside. She had cast her water gun aside while the other kids continued playing. Instead she begun digging for treasures in a waterlogged flowerbed in our yard. She found a crystal, an old brass knob, and a worm.


What a wonderful distraction.