My friend, Dr. James Felak of the University of Washington, notes that life is full of broad proverbs that are both true and commonsensical, yet flatly contradictory and false if we try to make them into an all-encompassing rule of life. That’s why everybody believes “haste makes waste” but also believes “he who hesitates is lost.” That’s why Scripture itself (Proverbs 26:4-5) puts two seemingly contradictory (and yet true) proverbs right next to each other:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
And that same commonsense habit of mind is why the Catholic tradition has always been ambiguous about curiosity.
On the one hand, we want our children to have a healthy sense of curiosity. Sometimes, my wife and I sit in quiet and bemused fascination as our three-year-old, Sean, does science with hot chocolate and noodles. As his belly fills up and bodily needs are thereby satisfied, his mind turns to higher questions of contemplation and the nature of Creation, such as physics and hydraulics. When this happens, he very carefully picks out one macaroni noodle, dips it into his rapidly cooling hot chocolate, extracts exactly 2 cc’s and drips it on to his plate. Then he repeats the process ad infinitum with a look of intense concentration, like Louis Pasteur on the verge of a cure for anthrax. I’m not sure what, precisely, he is trying to discover, but this is definitely Science, not Art, going on here: a thirsty curiosity to see what happens when he tries this (whatever oddity “this” is today). And, on the whole such curiosity is to be praised as a fitting reflection of the glory of God. As the writer of Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”
However, this is not the only thing the Tradition has to say about curiosity. Just as it praises curiosity for the right reason in the right sphere, it also warns that curiosity can also kill cats. I learned this 32 years ago as I sat in front of my brother Mike’s old Philco black and white TV. Mike was gone to work and I was a nine year old kid with too much time on my five-fingered devil’s playgrounds. So, for some reason, I took it into my head to rub the eraser of a pencil I happened to have across the plastic screen of the TV. Result: a clearly visible line. Cool!, I thought, so I proceeded to write my name too. It was only when I finished that I discovered I couldn’t get my name off the screen. It was a permanent feature presentation.
I tried to play dumb when Mike asked me about it later. (“Who me?” As though Mom or Dad had crept into the room in the dead of night and written my name on his TV in fourth grade handwriting.) But his keen Holmesian mind nonetheless found me out and my derriere received a painful reminder that curiosity is not an unambiguous blessing.
That is sort of our race’s plight. Curiosity is, on the whole, good. But curiosity about absolutely everything is not necessarily good. There are some things (like, f’rinstance, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) about which curiosity is not necessarily a great idea, particularly when somebody who you know to be trustworthy has warned you of the consequences of such curiosity. That’s why one good summary of human history, according to the Catholic poet Pavel Chichikov is “What could it hurt?” followed sometime later by, “How was I supposed to know?”
The answer to this lame excuse is “You were supposed to know because I warned you.” Every parent can empathize with this rejoinder because every parent has had to tell junior not to stick his tongue in a light socket or put buttons up his nose (I did this in fourth grade too) or pull the cat’s tail. And every parent has watched as junior has defiantly tested to see if the laws of physics, human anatomy and cat psychology apply even to him. It is then that we begin to move from the realm of legitimate curiosity and into the realm of illegitimate curiosity, particularly when junior keeps trying these little experiments well after the age of moral discernment. “How was I supposed to know?” is an understandable exclamation for a five year old (though five year olds seldom exclaim it, because they have sense enough to attend to the lesson and not to waste time with self-justifications). But for those of an age of moral accountability it is often a whine to cover their recklessness.
Which of course brings us back to our job as parents, for we are called to mitigate the recklessness. And that means reducing the opportunities to say “How was I supposed to know?” to as bare a minimum as possible. So along with the healthy curiosity of the macaroni scientists, it is therefore also wisdom to anticipate (and remember from our own youth and adolescence) the questions and experiments we performed with disastrous results and allow our kids to learn from them ahead of time rather than re-invent the square wheels we fashioned in our folly. For we want our children to find answers like the kings and queens they are, not like fools.