Steering our Collective Curiosities

by Gretchen Mead
Executive Director

As the story goes, Sir Isaac Newton was resting under an apple tree when an apple fell square on his noggin, triggering one of the most brilliant lines of questioning in human history, leading to the discovery of gravity. Newton’s restful observation led to curiosity. And curiosity led to discovery.

Observation has a way of doing that – triggering our curiosities.  

Last week I was on a spring break stay-cation with my kids. It was soothing to settle in with them, observe their interactions, intentionally foster downtime free from lists, technology, expectations, a schedule. The process of settling in was interesting: The first day they were irritated and bored. For a brief moment I thought, “We have to plan something for these kids to do so spring stay-cation is not a total bomb! Bust out the bouncy houses and movie theaters ASAP!” Luckily, early morning on day two, before anyone else was awake, I went for a walk.

Being the gardener that I am, I love spring deeply. But this year, the busyness and task list of everyday life along with larger world dynamics has left me with a dismal feeling about the rush of spring. Something is not right. I sit at my computer screen with my eyeballs wide and trancelike, flooding my brain with brief, harsh stories—political strife, mass displacement of our fellow humans, unrest, war, poverty, climate disruption—all wearing on my spirit. My internal voice is unquiet, my mind busy with chatter, filled up to the top with more and more information to process. The moment that I stop the continuous stream of input, I feel an uncomfortable stirring. What is this sensation?

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When I was a child, I was often in close proximity to both the stinging nettles and jewelweed that grew wild in the bed of our creek. One day, I squeezed the succulent jewelweed and found a cool, slimy juice in my hand. I applied the juice to the rash I had from running through the nettles ten minutes before and was soothed—a solution that arises from one’s experience with the earth. I’m no Isaac Newton, but much was discovered in that time.

Au contraire….am I feeling bored? Yes, I’m bored out of my gourd, too. Me AND the kids. How can this be?

It occurs to me: Boredom is a vastly important bellwether, the space between stimulation and curiosity. Overstimulation triggers an array of failed coping mechanisms–apathy to addiction, anxiety to depression. Boredom is the empty space that yawns when we are not being fed thoughts nor generating thoughts on our own. The state of boredom is an essential transition toward the curiosity necessary to deeply ponder and, like Newton, to discover the mysteries of the universe, whether they be scientific, divine, or both. These days, we do not have enough boredom to stimulate curiosity.

Curiosity, it seems, requires observation, quietude and a free-flowing mind. At this moment in time, we are doing a pretty awful job of teaching ourselves and our children how to be bored, so that we can be curious.

Not bad for a morning walk.

….

This realization drew my thinking to the spiritual therapy our new gardeners often report experiencing when they recognize the benefits of gardening. Gardening transitions our minds from anxiety to calm. It gives us a moment to be bored and time to observe and become curious about the garden. And it often goes even deeper than that, right toward one’s sense of God in relationship to the natural world at their fingertips.

Busyness takes us away from God (or Allah, or Yahweh, or the Life Force, or the Vortex, or….). Gardening, the slow meandering process of using our hands in the soil, moves us toward God. It moves our children toward God. And it fosters our innate curiosity about the world around us, moving us toward our most deeply grounded, human selves in relationship to the natural world of which we are a part.

….

When I got home from my walk, the kids and I grabbed a warm, fuzzy blanket and sat down on the porch to think about our garden. Surely the grapes will produce this year, the pears will be fat, and we will discover the way a specific beetle seems to keep away the aphids.

This spring, unplug. Get bored. Do it long enough to point yourself and/your family members toward curiosity.  Who knows what might emerge from this place…another Newton story, or perhaps a glimpse of God.

There many ways to get there, but gardening is my favorite.

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One Response to Steering our Collective Curiosities

  1. Ellen Abrams Blankenship says:

    Beautifully written, Gretchen! My mother taught me, many years ago, the beauty and potential of “boredom”. I will pass this along to those who I believe will benefit from the message. You are very wise!

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