Penicillin, one of the most widely used drugs on the planet, is actually something incredibly gross: mold. That’s right, mold. Now wouldn’t we quickly and automatically throw out this nasty substance if it showed up in our science lab petri dishes?! And yet Alexander Fleming was able to peer into those plates, remain grounded and non-judgemental enough to notice, and made a key historical discovery. He was able to use curiosity.
I strongly believe that curiosity is the way forward. But unfortunately culture and the pace of life leave little to no room for a spirit of inquiry. Insead it gets squeezed out of our lives. While we praise it in children, adults rarely celebrate curiosity- especially when it gets in the way of productivity.
At times I split my life into two segments: my life before cultivating curiosity and my life unleashed through curiosity. In my younger years I lived much of life through the scripts written and handed down to me. I had a specific role to play and was told how to play it. Very simple. I would have never dreamed about asking questions and looking for answers outside of those life scripts! Life wasn’t all bad then, but it was small and limited.
Eventually I realized I was fairly numb. I started to think through how life had been described to me, noticing that what was said didn’t line up with my experience. My joy-filled life didn’t come to be after doing everything in my script. Shocker! Hesitantly I started to notice what was going on inside me and what transpired in the world around me. I started wondering if other people’s experiences were similar. I started to question everything. In total honestly, those years (yes YEARS!) were fairly dark at times. Much like mold, I became grossed out and judgemental about many things. In my season of questioning I didn’t know how to make sense of things.
But I kept being curious.
You see, through that time I began to change and transform internally. Things started to click together as I noticed more and more. I began to piece together that numbness was actually some anger protecting a deep sadness. Curiosity was hard to practice because I began to get acquainted with the hard parts of me I was desperately avoiding. Curiosity was hard because I had to look my sadness in the eyes.
Hard and difficult feelings are easily ignored. If you don’t pay attention to them it is almost like they don’t exist right? Wrong. They do exist and they’re there for a reason. Unfortunately when we avoid and tune out the difficult, we also train our brains and bodies to shut out the good and celebratory emotions. Both the difficult and the enjoyable are housed in the same area of the brain; to shut off one is to shut off them all.
If you’re able to get curious about the difficult though, leaning into what you so desperately want to avoid, that is where the magic happens. As I got more curious about myself and others, I became acquainted with grief. Those were those difficult years. But that process is also what I credit to waking up my soul to seeing beauty and potential both in myself and the world around me. Curiosity paved the way. When I felt lost, I would simply take a deep breath and notice. Something would peek my interest and I was able to continue making steps forward, even without understanding the full picture and yes while still overall feeling lost.
Curiosity is the key ingredient to what we today call mindfulness. Study after study continues to reveal that mindfulness has incredible health and growth implications. Anxious? Practice mindfulness. Depressed? Mindfulness. Overwhelmed and feeling ungrounded? Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness. So what is this whole mindfulness business? Much like Alexander Fleming, mindfulness is the ability to take a step back, observe, get curious, and notice how things are playing out in a non-judgemental way. You will not get far if you continually respond in judgement.
Life may seem discouraging, overwhelming, disappointing, and downright gross like mold. You may feel all those things toward yourself. You may feel them towards someone you know or even the state of our national and world politics and events. But the only way forward is to lean into the gross, get curious, and gather all information possible to make decisions to move forward.
So while life continually squeezes curiosity out, I firmly stand saying curiosity is the only way forward. It is the precursor to movement and discovery. Imagine the personal growth that can come from getting curious. Or the eventual greater impact on others that spills out because of curiosity. Imagine the overflowing of compassion extended around the world- simply because you and I chose to get curious. It is the start of something beautiful.
Real talk: this process can be hard. Being inquisitive literally means entering into the unknown. And guess what, the unknown is one of the four categories our brains register as a threat. Your brain and body will literally be telling you to stop being curious because it is scary. Because of this, it is vital that you connect with someone who can be compassionate and interested alongside you. Family, friend, God, pastor, therapist or even a dog with kind eyes. Find someone to connect with and let them into your process. We therapists here specialize in meeting people where they are at and helping them move forward. But anyone that feels safe can play this role in your life. If you find yourself needing someone still, then don’t hesitate to reach out to our staff today. We would be glad to get curious and make sense of life alongside you.
Written by therapist Alexandra Hoerr
More Optimum Joy Articles
Sometimes Disney movies are spot on with the emotions, questions or thoughts that you or I have felt. This can be said about the story of Mulan, Simba in the Lion King, and of Elsa from the movie Frozen. Each character is on a journey of transformation, one that has...
We avoid the most important conversations in our lives for fear we’ll make distressing situations worse, yet our silence causes chronic stress from sustained, unresolved conflict. Several years ago I read a business book called Crucial Conversations, which I continue...
It’s a busy season as fall comes around; when kids are going back to school, sports are starting up again, and couples start to get wrapped up not only in their jobs, but their kids schedule as well. Alan Fruzzetti talks about how to optimize your time together in his...