Curiouser and Curiouser
Judgement - the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.Curiosity - a strong desire to know or learn something.
His name is Jack and I first came across him more than a decade ago. Initially I noticed Jack because of his shambling, ungainly gait. He looked precariously positioned on his feet, each step holding the possibility for calamity, arms at odd angles, one shoulder held higher than the other, fingers twisted and curved like claws. I think of myself as a discerning individual, and in this moment I noticed how awkward this man appeared to me. Out of habit, I quickly looked the other way...I didn’t want to be rude.
At the age of five, I met my cousin Beth for the first time. I remember crying with my mother on our return home. After trying, in vain, to play with my cousin who was born deaf, I felt frustrated. Communicating with her was a challenge. Her voice, when she spoke, sounded misshapen and very hard to hear. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but over the course of the intervening years, no doubt coached by my mother, I learned to really listen to Beth and we became quite close. As we grew older, I recall many conversations with Beth about how if felt to be different, to stand somewhere outside the experience of the majority. It was fascinating for both of us.
I have always been a curious person. I was forever the child who dismantled his toys and then attempted to put them back together. In a misguided effort to better understand time, I recall trying, in vain, to convince my mother to let me climb atop the roof and watch the sun rise and then stay there all day until it set. My parents have a plethora of embarrassing stories of little John asking sometimes funny and sometimes inappropriate questions of strangers at the pool or in the supermarket. Curiouser and curiouser, I would hound friends to take me to their church to see how it differed from the Methodists.
Generally my family indulged and even encouraged my curiosity, but like all children I was prompted not to stare at people. When it became clear that I had a penchant for asking uncomfortable questions, it was “explained” that these kinds of inquiries could be construed as rude or at the very least awkward. Apparently not everyone was going to be like Beth, wiling to give me insight into how they were living their life. This had the intended impact on me and I grudgingly gave up my question and answer skit. It had unintended consequences as well. It made me sad and for years, well into my adulthood, I would grow melancholy when I came across someone with a disability. My friends in college thought I was being insensitive (this was during the height of political correctness) – that I shouldn’t assume “differently abled” people were having an inferior experience. Therapists dwelled on the reflexive nature of emotions and how my desire to ask these kinds of questions must stem from some emotional deficit from my childhood I was seeking to resolve...no doubt.
Despite my training as a yogi, this push/pull of judgment and curiosity went on for years until a fateful evening on my way to the MARTA station from Phillips Arena. There was a homeless man on the side of the street asking for money and as is my way, I stopped and looked at him. I really looked at him, I looked him in the eye, noticed how different he was from me...how different he was from the affluent people rushing to get past him. I also saw in that moment how he was just like me and it was as though someone had opened the curtains in a dark room. Much to the chagrin of my companions, I struck up a conversation with the homeless guy asking for money. I couldn’t help myself; I was fascinated by the opportunity to really see life through the eyes of someone who clearly didn’t have my perspective.
Then there is Jack, not homeless, but definitely different. He and I continued to cross paths for years. He works near my home in Midtown. I never talked to Jack, thinking better of my curiosity. One day in Colony Square Jack took a tumble on the granite floor ahead of me. He landed hard and cut his lip. There was blood and concerned citizens. “Had he had a seizure? Did we call the paramedics?” and so on. I helped Jack back onto his feet. He was fine – and was I ever curious about how he felt! A few weeks later, I saw him sitting outside on a beautiful evening. He was holding an Android phone precariously in one hand, listening to music. As I walked past him, I looked him in the eye and made my biggest smile, feeling that urge to stop and ask questions. I almost turned the corner, as I had so many times in the past. Instead, I walked back and stopped in front of him and introduced myself. We had the most mundane conversation possible, totally uninteresting. Jack was more or less bothered that I had interrupted his music and his enjoyment of such a gorgeous evening. Amusing how we limit our experience of others and in doing so create a reality that isn’t true.
Judgement is how we survive in this world. Without it we would all die very early deaths. Curiosity is how we assimilate our environment and through it we learn to become invested. Despite our differences we are all having a shared human experience, and it is enlightening to learn how a blind person sees and how a sighted person doesn’t. It is fascinating to reflect on how we take our experience of reality for granted and in so doing discount the experience of those around us. It is refreshing to see and in some cases experience life from a completely different perspective. Being curious means that we are invested and this shows that we care. Not every wrong can be righted but ignoring the truth can be just as painful as assuming limitation. In a world in which data flows at ever increasing speeds through more virtual channels, often what we long for is the acknowledgment that our pain or sorrow or joy is real and not so unlike the pain or sorrow or joy of those around us.
-John Merideth Autumn 2013