ON WALLS AND CURIOSITY - Michael Fryer
Image credit: Jonny McEwen
Before moving to the United States a few years ago, I spent most of my life in Yorkshire in the north of England. If you’ve ever read anything by the Brontë sisters you can probably picture the barren, windswept moors that cover the higher parts of the region. Nothing taller than knee-high heather and bracken can grow in these beautiful and desolate stretches. Trees just can’t cope with the constant wind and a famous local song talks about the mortal perils of going for a walk on the moors without your hat. Due to their spectacular natural beauty these areas are criss-crossed with paths used by sheep and walkers alike. I remember one occasion when I was out for a hike on a bitterly cold and blustery day. Walking at an angle into the wind in order to avoid being blown over, I reached a point where I needed a rest and the hot tea I had in a thermos. Thankfully, running like arteries across this open land are countless stone walls, built without mortar but sturdy enough to last for centuries. They’re solid enough to block the wind too. And so with great relief I crouched down and found sanctuary from the gale. This is something walls do tremendously well. They protect, support and shelter. However, at some point I knew I would have to move. If I stayed there forever, hypothermia would take hold and my story would reinforce the folk wisdom of that song. The path beckoned me to rejoin it so I said farewell to the comforting safety of my wall and stepped back into the gale.
Curiosity is a truly wonderful thing, despite what they say about its impact on the feline population. It’s what has lead to all human innovation, knowledge, and the deepening of relationships. It’s also what moves us beyond walls, both literal and figurative. In 1896, Greek poet Constantine Cavafy wrote these powerful lines:
With no consideration, no pity, no shame
They’ve built walls all around me, thick and high
And now I sit here feeling hopeless
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind
Because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed?
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they’ve closed me off from the outside world.
There’s a lot of talk about walls these days. The talk tends to focus on the physical, tangible ones that we don’t have much influence over. The walls that don’t get as much attention are also the ones ordinary individuals like you and I can help bring down, the kind of walls that Cavafy wrote about; the ones of which we’re not yet conscious, or about which we are only just becoming aware. Learning an extra bit of information about someone else, but equally important, learning about ourselves is how we begin to dismantle these seemingly permanent barriers that surround us. It doesn’t just happen, it must be intentional. That’s the thing about curiosity. It’s a conscious, deliberate way of thinking and acting.
A friend of mine was studying for a Masters degree in counseling. His class was quite small which made the fact that he and one of his fellow students clearly didn’t like each other more pronounced. Their personalities and communication styles created mutual irritation on a daily basis. Much to their initial resistance, they were encouraged to sit down, talk about it and, above all, listen to what the other had to say. What emerged from those conversations was highly enlightening for both parties. It turned out that my friend’s communication style and personality reminded his colleague of her ex-husband. She reminded him of his mother. Their interactions had been hindered from the start due to unconscious and very complex filters that triggered negative memories of damaging relationships from their past. This new information was not a magic wand. They didn’t suddenly like each other but they were able to pause and remind themselves, “It’s not your mother, listen to what she has to say,” or “It’s not your ex, give him a chance to speak.” That additional information, brought about through the encouragement of listening and curiosity, transformed their relationship.
In the context of living amidst great diversity and difference, I feel I should clarify something important about curiosity. In a recent workshop on intercultural communication, a transgender student shared that the question she is most often asked is, “What’s in your pants?” Curiosity, to be sure, but a curiosity that lacked compassion, consideration and kindness. We are always going to come across people who look different, sound different, act differently and about whom we are curious. We want to ask questions. That is understandable and very natural. However, if my question and the desire to have my curiosity satisfied stimulates the other person to feel excluded, uncomfortable and unwelcome, I mightbetter choose to live without knowing.
After twenty years of working with people on issues relating to peace and conflict, I am more convinced than ever that the foundation stone of healthy relationships is an ongoing commitment to self-awareness. In terms of inviting us to move beyond the sheltering walls of our comfort zones, this self-awareness is not only something over which we have control, but is also something that is strengthened with practice. When we listen to understand, not merely react or even reply, we learn things. It’s as simple as that.
We have no shortage of opportunities to ask ourselves potentially illuminating questions. The next time you’re feeling irritated, perhaps simply ask yourself why. When you find yourself resisting something, try to explore that resistance. When you get defensive, be deliberate in trying to figure out the root cause of why you pushed back. Acknowledge the walls that surround you and get curious about how, when, and why they were built. If you’re like me then you’ve enough things in your life over which you beat yourself up. Please don’t add anything more. Be curious without judgement.
My friend Jonny McEwen is an artist. He paints abstract landscapes. I was looking at some of his paintings the other day and came across this one called Harbour Walls. On one side of them is known, safe, a haven. On the other side lies the unknown, potential danger but also great possibility. When we seem to be surrounded by people and ideas that don’t resonate or feel familiar, we are called to venture beyond our comfort zones, to journey outside of ourselves, and also within, to places that feel awkward or challenging.
Listen and acknowledge your curiosity. It’s inviting you on an adventure, in which you could learn to be more beautifully yourself.
Michael Fryer invites you to consider more curiosity questions, in the current issue of The Porch magazine, dedicated to the notion that there's always one extra piece of information hiding behind the face of an opponent, which, when looked for, would inspire empathy. You can read more here.