Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Curiosity – it doesn’t always kill

I’m not one to follow the fold.

I don’t run with the crowd. I don’t follow the pack. I move to the beat of my own drum. I rock the boat. I like to swing my chariots high when others swing theirs low…

I just confused myself.

My point is that I like free thinking without provocation or direction from others. On Monday it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so on that day my mind naturally began thinking about Malcolm X instead. I thought about the autobiography he’d written, recalling a moment in the book where Malcolm X discussed how he had a natural interest and curiosity in all aspects of life.

The way he described his passion for everything that surrounded him resonated with me, and he credited this curiosity as the primary source of his personal motivation, and I’ve never forgotten that.

It sparked in me a desire to keep my eyes open to the world around me. I understood the old adage that “someone’s junk is another’s treasure,” but I wanted to take the time to learn why something you might consider junk was actually someone else’s treasure.

It’s an eye-opener for me to do this, and I think my curiosity drives me to become a better person. I realize it’s hard to do sometimes, especially when living in North Dakota, where our moods are often dictated by the weather, but we’ve had our fair share of decent days so far this winter, which has kept my brain and willpower somewhat functional.

I think curiosity is ingrained in us from birth. We want answers. We need to understand our surroundings. I think back to when I was about 5. I was driven by curiosity – but it wasn’t a benevolent urge by any means.

My mother often took me to retirement homes, and while she played piano for the residents, I entertained myself. What I did was walk around and flick my fingers in front of people’s faces. I still feel bad about doing this to people, but I was a kid – I had a genuine cur-iosity to see how people would react, and I needed to pursue it.

My mother once told me a similar story of her own morbid curiosity. When she was in elementary school, she went to the back of her classroom to sharpen her pencil. Making her way back to her desk, my mom wondered what would happen if she stabbed someone with that pencil. So she did.

There always seems to be a victim during these ill-advised moments of curiosity. I was myself once. When going to church camp during my adolescent years, there was a guy staying in the same cabin I was in. I was walking back to camp after lunch, and he was far behind me trying to get my attention. I pretended not to hear him, and kept walking. A few seconds later I felt a sudden blow to the back of my head. The kid had thrown a rock at me to get my attention. It worked, and when he came up to me I asked him why he did that. He said, “I was just curious to see what you’d do.”

I can’t say I learned very much at church camp, but these days when someone calls my name, I don’t waste any time in acknowledging them.

Curiosity is natural in humans. But what propels us from taking that curiosity and turning it into a genuine passion for everything around us? How did Malcolm X do it?

I think I got to that point the moment I stopped flicking my fingers in front of people’s faces. I have something now that drives me more than a selfish curiosity – compassion. That, I realized, is the fuel for controlling your curiosity.

We need curiosity. But more so, we need compassion. It keeps us moving forward. Where would we be if Leonardo da Vinci had given up on his hunger to find solutions to mankind’s needs, or if Einstein had said, “I give up. Relativity is all relative, anyways.” I couldn’t tell you, because I’m not that smart, but I’m sure we’d be throwing more rocks at people’s heads and stabbing each other with pencils.

I had a teacher in college say during a lecture that he wasn’t stimulated by anything anymore. I couldn’t believe he’d said that – I really admired the guy, so I was shocked. I seriously wanted to flick my fingers in front of his face. Immediately I was curious to know how he’d gotten to that jaded point, because I didn’t ever want to be that way.

I continue to feed my compassion-fueled curiosity these days, as it’s my way of not only enriching myself, but also reaching out to better understand what makes others tick. Curiosity drives us towards a better world, while compassion keeps us curious.

Even right now, I’m curious to figure out how I should end this column.