Curiosity

Sarah Richards
August 14, 2016

Curiosity

“The Scotty Who Knew Too Much”, a fable by James Thurber.[i]

Several summers ago there was a Scotty who went to the country for a visit. He decided that all the farm dogs were cowards, because they were afraid of a certain animal that had a white stripe down its back. “You are a pussy-cat and I can lick you,” the Scotty said to the farm dog who lived in the house where the Scotty was visiting. “I can lick the little animal with the white stripe, too. Show him to me. “Don’t you want to ask any questions about him?” said the farm dog. “Naw,” said the Scotty, “You ask the questions.”

So the farm dog took the Scotty into the woods and showed him the white-striped animal and the Scotty closed in on him, growling and slashing. It was all over in a moment and the Scotty lay on his back. When he came to, the farm dog said, “What happened?” “He threw vitriol,” said the Scotty, “but he never laid a glove on me.”

A few days later the farm dog told the Scotty there was another animal all the farm dogs were afraid of. “Lead me to him,” said the Scotty. “I can lick anything that doesn’t wear horseshoes.” “Don’t you want to ask any questions about him?” said the farm dog. “Naw,” said the Scotty. “Just show me where he hangs out.” So the farm dog led him to a place in the woods and pointed out the little animal when he came along. “ A clown,” said the Scotty, “a pushover,” and he closed in, leading with his left and exhibiting some mighty fancy footwork. In less than a second the Scotty was flat on his back and when he woke up the farm dog was pulling quills out of him. “What happened?” said the farm dog. “He pulled a knife on me,” said the Scotty, “but at least I have learned how you fight out here in the country, and now I am going to beat you up.” So he closed in on the farm dog, holding his nose with one front paw to ward off the vitriol and covering his eyes with the other front paw to keep out the knives. The Scotty couldn’t see his opponent and he couldn’t smell his opponent and he was so badly beaten that he had to be taken back to the city and put in a nursing home.

Moral: It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.[ii]

The hymn we sang earlier, “We Laugh, We Cry” is a favorite of many UU congregations, and of many UUs, and I am one of them. I’m especially fond of the very last phrase, “…maybe we’ll finally see: even to question, truly is an answer.” We are a people who ask questions throughout our lifelong “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We couldn’t ever fall into the role of the know-it-all Scotty, right? We’re obviously the humble farm dog in the fable…but what if we are, in fact, both? Last Sunday’s service “Listening” was the first of three services about Slowing Down, Slowing Down to make deeper connection with our selves and with the world around us. Really listening often spurs curiosity, as we consider new insights from what we’ve heard, we have more questions, it can become an ever-widening cycle. On the other hand, if—like our friend the Scotty, we don’t slow down to listen and to ask questions, the narrowness of our understanding vanishes to nothing. This morning, I invite us to slow down, and to direct our curiosity inward – to listen for voices of certainty and doubt, closed and open-mindedness in ourselves and within our congregation and UU movement.

Some of you may remember a children’s story I read here about a year and a half ago, called The Three Questions[iii]. The boy at the center of the story wants to be a good person, and is not sure how to go about it. He has questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?

The boy, Nikolai, consults his friends, but each answers according to their particular experience, so he is unsatisfied. Nikolai makes a long and arduous solo journey, and even puts himself in danger in his quest.

Nikolai’s three questions are what we might call, “big questions of life,” but they also apply to any particular problem we may be facing – when to take action, who is the most important one—who is affected the most/who is the most vulnerable/who needs most attention, what is the right thing to do? These questions are ones that we encounter over and over in many different contexts in our lives, and it is not the particular answers but the quest—the solo journey we make in considering the questions—that brings insight.

This reflective turn isn’t easy. Our inner Scotties often brush aside our internal farm dogs, sailing into the fray with unquestioning certainty. We resist introspection. Maybe because we’re in a hurry, maybe because we’re afraid of what we might learn. For example, when I describe a problem I’m having to my ministry coach, she often tells me, “when you feel resistance, turn to wonder. What are you curious about?” Usually my first impulse is to resist that guidance: “Turn to wonder, hah! Easy for you to say—you don’t have to deal with this problem…” But when I’m able to get past that, we start coming up with good questions for me to ask myself, to slow down and unpack the problem.

What is a good question? Last week I mentioned Parker Palmer’s Quaker-influenced “circle of trust” method of group discernment. One of its guidelines is: “No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other.[iv]” Not surprisingly, there is a lot of attention in this approach to asking good open, honest questions. The first tip is: “An honest, open question is one you cannot possibly ask while thinking, “I know the right answer to this and I sure hope you give it to me…” Thus, “Have you ever thought about seeing a therapist?” is not an honest, open question! But “What did you learn from the experience you just told us about?” is.[v]” When someone comes to us for advice, these are the questions that help them to insight. And these are the questions we can ask ourselves, too.

In her book Did I Say That Out Loud? Musings from a Questioning Soul, UU minister Meg Barnhouse tells a story about a dream she had after she broke her rider mower while riding it “wide open,” going too fast:

I had a dream one night that I was dozing in a dark car. I was parked at the top of a steep drop-off thickly planted with trees. Somehow I knocked the gear into neutral and when I woke up (in the dream) the car was rolling downhill. I steered between the trees, trying not to crash[vi].

When I met with my dream interpretation buddy, she asked me to think about it with my awake mind. What would I do differently if I found myself careening downhill between trees? I thought for a minute. “Um—steer more quickly?”

“That’s all you can think of?”

“Y-e-e-e-s.” I knew she had something in mind but I couldn’t fathom what it was.

“You could put on the brakes, Meg!” she said.

“Brakes!” That hadn’t occurred to me. Brakes. My two modes are one hundred miles per hour or full stop. Moderation does not come easily to me.

“Go gently with the mower,” my friend said.

“Gently!?” I thought. I’m not gentle with anything….

Is it possible to make friends with the physical world and with the way things are? Is it possible to feel affection for the stresses of machinery, the limitations of the body, the patterns of the way things happen? Would that affection help me move more fluidly through the rest of my life?[vii]

Despite her initial resistance to the idea of going gently, this questioning soul forged ahead to ask herself, “is it possible?”.

I invite you now into a moment of meditation. With your feet on the floor, back straight, shoulders relaxed, hands resting on your lap, take a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth…on your next exhale, let your eyes close or lower your gaze, and return to normal breathing. Note the physical sensations: feet touching the floor, the weight of the body on the chair, sounds in the room and outside. Now focus on the breath, flowing in and out of the body. Bring to mind a moment of feeling resistant, or frustration with something, or someone. It might even be right now, feeling resistant to this meditation. What are you curious about with that feeling? What question might you ask yourself? …..

Now return your focus to the breath, following its rhythm in and out. Open your attention to the sounds of your breathing, the sounds around you, the physical sensations of your feet on the floor, your hands touching your lap. On your next exhale, gently open your eyes.

Slowing down to listen and ask open, honest questions works for collective journeys too, for example, as a committee, or as a congregation, as we move toward common purpose. In her book Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley writes,

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking…Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know, Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty[viii].

This Fall, the Fellowship will offer many invitations to slow down and ask questions, as our friendly farm dog advised. In September, the Board of Trustees will have our retreat on the theme of Working Together to Meet Our Goals, and the congregation will host the first workshop to discern the vision and mission of our Religious Education program, led by DRE Consultant Lyn Hunt. In October, a special Congregational Meeting will kick off a series of listening circles about “Building a Culture of Generosity.” These and many other events are opportunities for slowing down, listening deeply, asking open, honest questions – and the big congregational life questions like what is the best time to do things?, who are the most important ones to welcome and to serve, and what is the right thing for us to do? What is possible? And let us keep in mind that this congregation is a part of a wider community, that we are in relationship with many organizations with whom we can achieve more for justice, equity, and compassion in Southern Illinois than we can ever do alone. We need to ask ourselves questions even as we listen to and ask questions of those with whom we journey.

May we, as individuals, as committees, congregation, and community, when we experience the inevitable resistance, turn—together—to curiosity, with trust, respect, and love.

Amen.

 

[i] Thurber, James. 1943. Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated. Garden City, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 29-30
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Muth, Jon J. 2002. The Three Questions [Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy]. New York: Scholastic Books.
[iv] http://www.couragerenewal.org/touchstones/ accessed 8/12/16.
[v] Adapted from Palmer, Parker J, Arthur Zajonc, Megan Scribner. 2010. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 142.
[vi] Barnhouse, Meg. 2006. Did I Say That Out Loud? Musings from a Questioning Soul. Boston: Skinner House, pp. 54-55.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Wheatley, Margaret. 2009 (2nd Ed.). Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 166.