Tag Archive | "Ben Johnson"

The Curious Case of Curiosity

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“Curiosity killed the cat” is a time-honored proverb meant as a warning that, if you investigate things too often or too deeply, you could very well wind up in harm’s way.  One of the earliest forms of this adage dates back to William Shakespeare’s performance in Every Man in His Humor, a play written by Ben Johnson.  Shakespeare’s line was, “Helter skelter, hang sorrow. Care will kill a cat, uptails all, and a pox on the hangman!”   The Bard is also attributed with a similar quote via his 1599 play, Much Ado About Nothing:  “What, courage, man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.”

Through courage or just plain nosiness, curiosity is central to the human condition.  Inquisitiveness allows our minds to create new, critical thinking pathways as we seek the answers to the myriad things that keep us scratching our heads and striving for greatness.  Often, the search for answers is itself an adventure that takes us down new roads.   It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.”

If you don’t believe Emerson, think about life’s little mysteries that you have encountered and solved.  For instance, how many times has your boredom with the same old dinner menu prompted you to add new ingredients to a tried and true favorite to create a new recipe?  Do you remember how you approached a project for the school science fair when you were a child? Weren’t you excited to experiment until you produced something new, or at least, dramatic — like that flowing volcano concocted from liquid dishwashing soap, baking soda, and vinegar?  And how about that long-awaited first kiss?  Didn’t you ponder whether it would be a small, sweet surrender or just plain yucky, and didn’t your curiosity get the better of you?  Well, you kissed him or her, didn’t you?

Like that first kiss, the fear factor often dissipates once we move past the first layer of curiosity that reveals an answer, or at least, part of it.

There are times, admittedly, when a display of curiosity can be downright morbid, an ugly reflection of how the human psyche works.   When crowds gather around a person threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, something may trigger the masses to egg on the potential suicide.  Consider how often you have cussed the clog of traffic ahead of you, only to find that the drivers have slowed down to eyeball the gory results of a nasty highway accident.  And how many times have you slowed down to get a good look as you passed the aftermath of an accident that horrific?

Led in another direction, curiosity has proven to be a key factor in the evolution of man.  Envision, if you will, the wonder that cavemen felt when they were given fire by way of a bolt of lightning hitting a tree.  Then picture their despair when the original fire died out and they were left once again in a dark, cold, frightening world.  Curious as to how to create fire instead of waiting for nature to hand it to them, prehistoric tribes recreated the lightning-striking process, experimenting with different materials until they found that two rocks rubbed quickly together made sparks.

It was a long way from primitive Cro-Magnon Man to the quintessential Renaissance Man, but the road was paved with human curiosity and the advances born of that inquisitiveness.  By the time Leonardo da Vinci had entered the world, humanity had progressed to the point where it sought to glorify God and His handiworks through the arts, particularly in Renaissance Italy.  At the age of 14, young Leonardo was apprenticed as a painter.  He went on to craft works known far and wide centuries after his death, particularly The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.   Had da Vinci not been sidetracked by his burning curiosity, he may have finished a good many more works of art.

In addition to painting, he was also a sculptor, an inventor, an architect, an anatomist, a botanist, an engineer, and a geologist.  He did more in his lifetime than most of us can only dream about. His accomplishments included conceptualizing the designs for the world’s first helicopter, solar power tank, and calculator.  While these inventions were not completed during his lifetime, Leonardo left behind him many notebooks and drawings illustrating the fruits of his curious, creative mind.  To this day, his research and postulations astound modern science with their precision and inventiveness for a man who lived in the fifteenth century.  He did, however, devise an automated bobbin winder and a machine that tested the tensile strength of wire.

Da Vinci’s mind must have been on overload at times.  With all of the ideas zinging through his fertile brain, it must have comprised the fifteenth century equivalent of flipping through 300 TV channels and wanting to watch everything at once!  The great Leonardo da Vinci was succeeded by many other great historical thinkers, movers, and shakers. These included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Madam Curie, and Doctor Christiaan Barnard, whose sense of wonder and curiosity enabled them to bring into being major advances, from electricity to heart transplants.

Human beings are born curious; just watch a baby exploring its surroundings.  So what causes one person’s curiosity to hover in the range of normality and another’s, to expand light years beyond it?  Are highly creative people born with a special gene, or just willing to push the envelope of their curiosity?

Creative people allow their inquisitiveness to, in the words of Captain James T. Kirk, “Go where no man has gone before.”  Such individuals do not permit their minds to be hemmed in by prior knowledge or other people’s failures; they see the possible in what others have deemed impossible.   These are the people who seek new life forms at the bottom of our oceans and cures for diseases under the lenses of their microscopes; these are the people who gaze up at the night sky and wonder, “How can I travel to another star?”  These are the people who confront their fears and dream big because their minds will not rest, turning over and over with questions of things left unexplored.

Imagine the thrill and fear that the first astronauts must have faced to board a strange-looking craft and shoot through the sky toward unexplored space, not knowing what was out there or if they would be able to return home safely.  But if not for curiosity such as this, we would never have ventured forth beyond the openings in the caves that we first called “home.”  The human mind needs to be exercised and challenged; if not, it simply lies fallow, like an unplowed field.

I found Marie Curie’s take on this entire topic extremely interesting.  She’d advised, “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”  That is advice that we really should take to heart.  We get all caught up in celebrity gossip and forget that there are more important things in life.   If we can’t generate new thoughts on our own, the very least that we can do is support those whose curiosity compels them to create a better world in which to live.  As it has throughout the history of life on this planet, our future lies in the ability to create the greatness that we envision.

Therefore, we need to encourage our children, in particular, to be free thinkers.  Admittedly, this is a challenge in an age when the media is skewed completely in one direction and our school system and in fact, our lawmakers, give lip service to the beauty of Diversity even as it works to stamp out those important differences between us.  Who is to say what lies inside the mind of your curious children?  With the proper encouragement, perhaps you will raise the next great artist who will lift many hearts or a scientist who will provide us with the blueprint we need to save our environment. For as the American psychologist, Smiley Blanton, stated, “A sense of curiosity is nature’s original school of education.” 

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