Pathways to healing, pt 2: Curiosity

In our increasingly polarized societies, we are engaged in practices that are intensifying the divisions with which we live, divisions that are tearing at the fabric of our common welfare. This short series of posts offers four alternative practices I am suggesting we can adopt to begin to repair the harm those divisions cause. I described the first practice – acknowledged hypocrisy – here. The second practice I propose is curiosity.

My best friend, Matt Russell, is the person from whom I learned the fundamental importance of this posture towards others. I am convinced that this practice could do much to reverse our movement away from those we disagree with, and instead to nurture the kinds of relationships that we desperately need.

We have become quick to dismiss people because they are on the “other side” from us. “Republican or Democrat?” “Pro-choice or Pro-life?” “Affirming or rejecting?” “Capitalist or socialist?” As if that one description of a person provides enough information for us to accept or dismiss them: “If you’re that, then you must be all of this too.” There also seems to be a dramatic increase in the freedom we feel to use pejoratives about people we disagree with.

Most of us tend to believe the best about ourselves when ascribing motivations for the things we do and say. But we are in the midst of a cultural moment where the things we say about others – especially online – reveal we are quick to believe the worst about them, and unfairly ascribe the worst motivations to those who disagree with us.

This tendency is causing painful rifts in families, in long-standing friendships, in faith communities and our other social institutions. Casually mention that you voted for a certain politician and suddenly you’re a “deplorable”. Talk about universal healthcare and suddenly you’re a “naïve socialist”. Add #blacklivesmatter to a post and suddenly you’re a “self-hating SJW”.

The kind of harsh judgment we increasingly experience from others – including people we love – only encourages us to withdraw from conversations about important matters, to shrink our social networks, or to lash out in return. None of which are serving us well, nor contribute to the kind of shared life that nurtures our mutual flourishing.

So, curiosity.

I wonder if you’ve ever been talking about someone and said something like this: “I just don’t understand how they could say something like that.” Or, “I don’t understand why they can’t see why that is so wrong.” Or, “How could they possibly support something like that?” And the person we’re talking to shakes their head, as bemused as we are. Or says, “It’s because they’re such a <pejorative>.” And we both pat ourselves on the back for our rationality and moral superiority. The question such a conversation ought to raise is, “Have I actually made any effort to understand why the other person holds the opinion I find so confusing or offensive?” Have I exhibited any curiosity about them? If I know them to be otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, or kind – or even if I don’t – can I do more than just wonder why they said something I find problematic, and perhaps ask them why they said it? And not just so I can eventually lay out my reasons for why they are, in fact, entirely wrong about whatever it is, but in order to listen – truly listen – in order to understand. We may still disagree after the conversation – probably will, in fact – but my guess is we will have learned something about the other person that we didn’t know before. And – more importantly – we will have moved towards each other, rather than away from each other.

The apostle Paul, in a letter to the Jesus community in Galatia, wrote,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Clearly there were Jews and Greeks, enslaved and free persons, males and females in the church in Galatia. But Paul is saying that those binary, culturally primary descriptors are secondary to the reality of the unity that exists in Christ – whether we acknowledge that or not, or whether we structure our lives accordingly or not. And I think Paul was trying to stir their imaginations to pursue that unity as an embodied reality, a unity that surpasses cultural divisions.

Matt taught me much about the importance of curiosity, and perhaps it is nowhere more important than in marriage and other covenanted relationships. Regardless of how long a couple has been together, there is still much to be learned about the other, but we will only learn it if we continue to cultivate curiosity about them. And that curiosity will continue to draw a couple together, even as careers and children and hobbies and other interests might cause them to drift apart. A partner’s curiosity also has the added benefit of helping us grow in our understanding of ourselves, encouraging us to explore our own depths as well as theirs.

It’s no different in our other relationships. Curiosity about another person draws us towards them, even as other forces are working to push us apart. And it seems that there is a multiplicity of such forces at work among us.

I canvassed for a friend running for a seat on the City Council. Many of her constituents’ only question when I stood on their doorstep was, “Is she a Republican or a Democrat?” When I explained that it was a non-partisan race, most were insistent I tell them her party-affiliation, “because I’m not voting for a Republican/Democrat”. No curiosity about what she hoped to do for her district, or who she was as a person. They just needed to know that one (irrelevant) fact about her. This is problematic for both our democracy and our society.

So, the next time you’re tempted to dismiss someone on the basis of a single piece of information about them, or because they’re on “the other side,” try pausing for a moment to be curious about the reasons behind that (both theirs, and yours). And then try asking them a genuine question, listening to understand rather than to refute. Try this practice for a month, and see what you notice.

Sean GladdingComment