Thinking Toys #8 — Curiosity


There are parts of the world that don’t make sense. Some of these also generate a strong emotional reaction. People exist that hold very different beliefs from us. But can we say that we understand their perspectives? A common place to look is in politics. You also see it when people butt heads over metaphysics, core beliefs or values — religion, science, spirituality, etc.


Find one of these viewpoints. Something that feels particularly crazy or wrong to you but that you know others feel good about. As soon as you bring it to mind, you may notice an emotional response. Some aversiveness, or smugness, or even hatred. Try to acknowledge that response while also setting it aside. Instead, try to imagine how the world appears from this wacky perspective. Imagine a hypothetical holder of this view and try to empathize with them. Imagine this person, so different from you, is not merely confused. What was their childhood like? What are their hopes and fears? What would it take for you to believe what they do?


Notice how you may tend to paint this hypothetical person in a negative light. We tend to elevate our own perspective and perceive the other’s as inferior or degenerate. This effect is greater the more different the other appears. This is a natural response but is not helpful to this exercise. Try to set this aside and look from their eyes with compassion and curiosity. What do they know that you don’t? What have they seen that you haven’t?


How can we know when we’re doing this “right”? Check if you believe that the other person would agree with your description of them. If it feels condescending or paints them in a foolish light, you are probably missing the mark. People don’t tend to see themselves that way. You probably don’t consider your most strongly held beliefs as unintelligent or ignorant.


I’ve been a generally politically left-leaning person for most of my life. Also, I tend to reductionism and a scientific approach to understanding the world. Over the past few years, I’ve put in a lot of effort in exploring other approaches. What I continue to find is valuable knowledge embedded in (previously) foreign traditions and mindsets. Seeing how other systems navigate the world also helps me see the flaws in my rigid perspective. Yet, I know that I’m still scratching the surface of possibility and am working hard to improve.


This is Curiosity. Not the easy kind where we get excited and dive into things that seem useful. This is the hard kind: where things seem wrong, foreign, yucky, or bad. And yet, this is often where the juiciest insight is hiding — the places we have a hard time looking into. The more we can be curious, the more powerful we become. You become more able to connect with people that appear totally different from yourself. You become more able to see things in the world that your peers may be missing. Your implicit models improve and your actions become more effective.


And it seems like we can get better. Curiosity feels like a muscle. The weight we are lifting is that of emotional resistance to experience. We can exercise this muscle by coming up against this resistance. Toeing the line and feeling the discomfort. The more we try this exercise of pushing our boundaries, the easier it is the next time around.


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Also published on Medium.

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