Food for thought,  Social Issues

Can we be curious?

Why don’t we ask questions anymore? Asks Monica Sharp.


So many blessings,

so many complaints—


be honest if


were a religion

we’d all be saints

  Wendy Videlock,

Our world has entered its quantum phase. Even as space and time compress thanks to the internet, far-flung locales are within arm’s reach, while neighbors with unsavory opinions seem to us to live on another planet.

Social media and the endless news cycle exacerbate our dizzying sense of simultaneously zooming in and living in isolation. Where are our people? What is our tribe? Are they encountered in person throughout the day, at work, or at school, at the shops or as we go about our daily errands? 

We can ignore those with whom we rub shoulders but the notifications ping and ding demanding our attention. “You have likes. Did you want to see this and react to it? Please react, react, react.” The truth is we are exhausted from reacting.

There was a time in my life when I would have said this was the perspective of a sociopath. “You need to respond”, the old me would have scolded. “How can you not respond?” I was more easily baited and even more easily hooked before. My online world became more real to me than my analog world of sidewalks and pedestrians, cafés and the outdoors. 

I spiraled into a ‘news and friend bubble’ of my own creation, an imprisonment by degrees, which only revealed itself to me when the results of the 2016 US presidential election came in. I went to bed on election night convinced – convinced – I would wake up to one reality, and woke up to another. I had been Trumped in more ways than one. I cried for a week. I blamed myself, and with good reason. 

I had created my own bubble and moved into it, to the detriment of my own well-informed perspective. I made the mistake of seeking only affirmation and like-minded companions in my comfortable echo chamber. I stopped asking questions. It felt so good to be constantly reassured that my beliefs were guaranteed to match reality. 

But I was woefully misled by none other than my impulses, and my perspective paid the price. I started turning off all my notifications. I disengaged, I unplugged. No tiny windows pop up to tease me with a link. 

My phone barely rings now. And I have to say, it has done wonders for my mental health. 

(I try to remember to turn on the sound if I know I am waiting for a call.) My time – and my response time – are my own. I respond and react when I wish, or when I can. My schedule does not own me. I own my schedule. I set the terms.

This incessant (and historically very recent) push to like or dislike, follow or unfollow is draining. It’s a full-court press on our daily awareness. We are drawn into interactions and environments that are increasingly extreme and decreasingly open.

Do we ever wonder why? Can we be … curious?

Why is there no ‘curious’ button? To say, I neither like nor dislike but would like more information. To turn those received opinions on their head, to admit both our known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and say, I wonder why this is so, tell me more?

Can you tell me more about your opinions? Can I interrogate myself about my currently held beliefs? Why do I believe this or that?

For many people whose worldview – or even faith – is built upon the foundation of a staunch unquestioning, this approach may be anathema. But curiosity is in fact a way to let the air and light into a compact, dark corner, where we feel both barricaded and barraged by messaging and demands. 

React. Respond. React. Respond. The human brain has not evolved to live this way. Can we see what our cultures and societies are doing to us as individuals and as communities? Is it possible to cultivate the curiosity that helps us see possible reasons and consequences, to view the world in a way different from how our well-traveled neural pathways of interpretation might push us to continue following? 

It’s hard to be anxious and curious at the same time.

 An article recently published in The New York Times recommends anxiety screening for all adults under the age of 65. This is astonishing. All adults? We are all at risk for medical-grade anxiety? 

If every adult under the age of 65 requires anxiety screening, it seems that our efforts might be better spent examining the stressors specific to certain economies and cultures to diagnose how they create a stressful environment that causes apparently nearly all adults to be stressed.

Let’s practise some curiosity. What could be the contributing factors to an epidemic of anxiety? Possibly long work hours and commutes? Employment uncertainty and food instability? Lack of access to health care, child care, and eldercare? No guaranteed sick leave or holiday pay? No guaranteed retirement? A cost of living that is impossible to estimate and plan for? And all this even before we address topics such as public safety, structural racism, and a loss of trust resulting in the disintegration of the implicit social contract. 

Could the constant vying for our attention by all forms of media and communication channels contribute to individual unease? 

Every ding, every bell, every buzz and vibration call for our attention and make us jumpy – and grumpy.

The prevailing culture would have us believe that our frustration is a personal shortcoming rather than a rational, collective response at being continually annoyed by dings, bells, vibrations and notifications, perpetually harassed by alarm bells and pitches for our attention. 

It is possible that for a small fraction of people in the world this system is working quite well, and it’s in the vested interest of the privileged to keep it that way. Keep us all working, at our desks, on schedule, producing. To paraphrase a vintage American campaign slogan from the 90s: “it’s the culture, stupid!”

To be curious is to wonder why. It’s hard to be simultaneously stressed and curious. Curiosity offers us space to expand and breathe, and to ask, why are things this way, and must they be this way? Is this true? Is this other thing also true, and how have I contributed to the popular acceptance of the earlier truth? 

Once opened, the mind finds new questions all around … Am I willing to adopt new truths as they reveal themselves to me, and perhaps discard outmoded truths that are now seen not only to no longer serve us, but possibly even to harm us? Can I differentiate truth from opinion? 

Indeed, if opinion were a religion, we’d all be saints. The converse is patently true. Opinion is not a religion, for which we can be grateful, and we all happen to be fallible human beings, not saints. (But is it possible that some saints live among us yet?)

 Is it possible that a world which asks more thoughtful questions more often could calm down, and see other reasons and other solutions? Might we benefit from wondering and asking rather than opining and insisting? Are there reasons and questions that we don’t know yet and haven’t found yet?

Are there? Don’t you wonder?

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Monica lives and works in Florence, Italy. Her international spirit travels with an American passport but she's long since lost count of all the relevant metrics. She currently moonlights as a legal researcher for a local law firm, and prior to that, pursued careers in international education and software. Her off-hours in Italy are filled with a creative buffet of writing, art, music, reading, parenting, and more. Monica frequently writes about cultural forays, interpretive adventures, and close observation.

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