Curiousity. Are we born with it?
I was in Jordan last week having a conversation with a friend who asked me, have you ever figured out what it is that makes us ask ‘why’, while many we grew up with do not? Why do we question while the majority of our friends and families accept?
I chuckled at the comment because I have been considering this exact question recently.
I have been looking back at my life and trying to chart how I got here today, and the question I was stuck at was exactly that: out of the many I grew up with in Jordan, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi, why did I have this inclination to question? Or, even more foundationally, what was this inclination, where did it stem from?
I had not been able to find an answer yet. But… maybe I was just asking the wrong question. Maybe it actually is not a question of why I had this curiosity trait, but a question of why this trait had the chance to thrive in me ‘more’ — more profusely, more impact-fully, more sustainably.
Most middle-eastern countries have not yet had a separation of religion and state. The local law is determined by religion — Islam, being the dominant one. A faith-based political system translates into a faith-based educational system. Faith, by definition, is the ‘complete trust’ in something, it is the belief based on spiritual basis, rather than proof.
In other words, a doctrine that helps people deal with uncertainty.
This translates into an educational system that doesn’t only foster the ability to say ‘I don’t know’ but the ability to be satisfied with saying ‘I’m okay with not knowing — and not EVER knowing’.
It make sense to assume that the average curiosity levels in the world I grew up in, is in line with those anywhere else in the world, by virtue of pure normalization and statistics. What differentiates us today though (unfortunately not positively, in my opinion), is the willingness to accept the lack of a solid answer, and from there the acceptance of the lack of need of one.
Curiosity, or asking why, is only the first step. It’s what one does with the answer that truly defines a successfully-curious mind. An average child in a faith-based system might ask ‘why’ once, twice, 10 times, but if at no point is his/her question met with ‘why don’t you find out?’, they might eventually learn to be okay with the ‘there’s no answer — trust that god knows best’.
If the stars however align and a child randomly (or karmically!) finds a door that can be opened rather than a locked one, that curiosity might get to flourish and create a (much more) open-minded human.
I then looked back at my life, trying to recall if I had such a defining moment -and it was quite easy to do so.
I recall very vividly returning home from school one day with a question burning in my mind. I was 8 years old, in grade 3. Our religion teacher had just taught us that Islam is the last of the monotheistic faiths and hence the most accurately depicted by god at this point (just like, as some stories goes, Christianity was an ‘update’ to Judaism). We were therefore told that god would like us all to be Muslim, given he’s sent his last prophet to confirm Jesus’s message and to tell us to follow him now, circa 640 years later. When I asked why that was the case, my teacher’s response was: ‘because god said so’ or ‘we shouldn’t question god’.
My closest friend at the time was our neighbor — George. Born a Greek Orthodox. I spent most of my free time with George, decorated Christmas trees together, celebrated Eid together, it was a seamless mixed-faith friendship. I came back home that day and asked my dad ‘is it true George believes in the wrong faith? Do you think he’ll go to hell?’ (typically, the first conclusion a kid would ask out of a faith-based school is — heaven vs hell. Straight to the point).
My dad’s response: “well, you know George and his family. What do you think? Should they go to hell?”
And that was it. The defining moment of my childhood. (forgive the slight dramatization of the impact, true as the story is — intended to make a point). “What do you think”. That’s the key. You are able to think. You are allowed to think. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You can come to your own answer. At that time, my simplistic young mind immediately said ‘No. They shouldn’t’. And, satisfied, I went about with the rest of my day without giving it a second thought. But the key was, it opened the door to the possibility of a different answer. The seed of curiosity was given its first taste of water.
This could explain why I had the chance to be different; not because I was more curious than others are, or had a trait others did not possess. I was (am) normal. I was given the chance to be curious — the seed of curiosity was allowed to grow.
I was taught it is okay not to accept a question, or a life, with a permanent uncertainty. Until this day, I still don’t.