23 Dec 2011 Dear Tristan: Imagine That

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about knowing . . . about whether it’s all that important – or even all that possible – to know without doubt that what you believe on any given matter is right.

I wrote and urged you, instead of loving knowledge, to love learning the process of adding to what knowledge you are able to gather for yourself.

To truly love learning, though, you must dive deeply into something that is essential to the learning process. It is dangerous, because you can never predict where it will lead you, or what your life will look like when you get there. In truth, this is something you’ve already exhibited . . . something that perhaps all babies at your age exhibit, before we adults kill it off as you grow.

I’m talking about curiosity.

We have this cultural milieu that says too much curiosity is dangerous. “Curiosity killed the cat,” they say. Often, this shows up as the flip side of the culture of “obedience” that I mentioned in one of my earlier letters. Children are taught both, “do as you’re told,” and “don’t ask too many questions.” When a baby reaches out and touch something his parents don’t want him to have, he gets his hand smacked. When a child asks “why?” when told to go do something, he gets a spanking. Our natural tendency toward exploration is under assault almost from the moment of birth, when the hospital nurse takes us and swaddles us up tightly, cutting off our ability to reach out to what is around us. Or alternatively, our hands are covered in hospital mittens, cutting off the most accessible area we have for exploring our sense of touch.

Is it any wonder that this same culture feels threatened when we grow up into adults who insist on questioning everything?

A question is a very, very powerful thing. You remember in my letter yesterday I wrote about Socrates. He was the guy who was wise enough to know that he didn’t know anything. He was

a teacher of others, but instead of telling him “this is what I know,” he would ask them questions. He would force them to think on their own: to develop their own answers . . . their own worldview, even . . . rather than merely parroting something he’d taught them.

Here’s what a question can do. A question can allow you to share deeply with another person, without coming off as threatening. As I mentioned yesterday, in our culture, we see knowledge through the “power-over” dynamic. If someone has knowledge they’re trying to share with me, they must be trying to exert power over me . . . to demonstrate their superiority. The fact that this may or may not be their intention is largely irrelevant, the point is that this is how we often interpret such an action, regardless of the intent behind it.

But what if, instead of sharing a bunch of knowledge, I simply ask a question? “Have you considered . . . ?” “What do you think about . . . ?” “How do you feel about . . . ?”

Now, instead of coming across as the stronger party in a “power over” relationship, you’re inviting the other person into a “power with” relationship. And at the same time, you’re not only indulging your own curiosity . . . you’re stimulating theirs at the same time!

A question, then, can be a powerful tool for learning, as well as a powerful tool for nurturing relationship. Curiosity can stimulate you to learn more about others, more about yourself, and more about the world around you.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, though, curiosity is a dangerous thing. That’s because curiosity is limited only by the power of your own imagination. Anything you can imagine, you can seek to discover.

Some, as I mentioned earlier, will feel threatened by this. New discoveries always threaten the status quo, and there is always someone invested in the way things are, who will resist any results of your curiosity . . . and will likely try to head off those results by discouraging you from indulging your curiosity in the first place.

But curiosity’s dangers do not only come from others. Some of them come from within yourself. For as you search, you might not like what you find. You might learn something that completely undermines a deeply-held belief. You might discover something that is harmful or detrimental to you. You might discover that you want it anyway.

That’s why, as I said in some of my earlier writing, I want to teach you discernment. You don’t need discernment to blindly follow orders and do what you’re told. You do need discernment if you’re going to set your imagination free and explore the world to discover what you think for your self, because you will need to know how to search wisely, and how to choose what you do with what you find. You need discernment to determine whether the new discovery negates the old belief. You need discernment to determine what discoveries may or may not be harmful for you, before they actually do harm you. You sometimes need discernment to tell you when one of them is already harming you, and it is time to stop.

Discovery is dangerous. I hope that as you grow and learn and discover you’ll trust me enough to let me help you, and help shield you from some of those dangers. But I also hope against hope that the mistakes I’m bound to make as a parent don’t do anything to kill off the innate curiosity you were born with. I’ve already seen it at work in the way you desperately stave off falling asleep in order to take one last inquisitive glance at the room around you, the way that you try to peer around the back of a mirror to see where that other little person is coming from, the way you grasp for things just out of your reach, and the way you get so incredibly frustrated when you can’t get to them. I hope you never lose that. I hope you learn to always set your imagination free, and follow it wherever it takes you.

In the meantime, I’ll be there searching right along with you. I’m excited for us to share with each other what we find.

Love,
~Dad

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