Life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery
- Annie Dillard
I had an interesting experience recently that demonstrates the wonder of genuine interest. I was seated next to a young mother with her infant on a four-hour flight to the west coast. About an hour after we took off the baby began to fuss and cry. Several folks nearby, busy at work on their laptops, sighed loudly and shuffled in their seats, as if to say, “Will you please do something to control your child?” I held my watch in front of the baby. She took it immediately and, of course, put it in her mouth. She studied and played with the watch for almost ten minutes.
“What happened?” I asked myself. “When I was a child I found a watch fascinating for ten minutes. Now that I’m an adult I look at your face for a second and move on. Even another human being is unworthy of my interest for very long.”
At birth, all of us are dependent upon the protection and nurturance of a caring adult. That place of total safety and well-being is the foundation for curiosity about the world. Babies at certain stages seem to be curious about everything. Most parents are familiar with this desire for exploration.
Tragically, some infants and young children are abandoned emotionally or abused by those entrusted to their care. But even those born into good and loving families can become lured into the parts of culture that emphasize indoctrination rather than creativity and the celebration of human potential. Over time, the innate and fundamental capacity for genuine interest recedes and becomes dormant. We do not have the time or curiosity to wonder or explore any more.
Years ago, I was teaching in a small, liberal arts college in Vermont. As part of our commitment to youth at the time, my partner and I organized the Vermont Governor’s Institute on International Affairs for high school students from throughout the state. Upon the recommendation of a number of respected colleagues we invited Tarzie Vittachi, a well-known journalist and writer from Sri Lanka, to be the keynote speaker. At the time, Tarzie was the Assistant Deputy Director of UNICEF. He turned out to a wonderful speaker and a wonderful man—clear and wise.
Tarzie joined us in our home for a quiet dinner at the end of the day. At one point he paused a moment and said, “Joseph, you seem so tired.”
“I am a bit burned out,” I admitted. “I’ve been teaching in a very intensive setting for almost fifteen years.”
“If you could do anything you wanted for the next year or so,” he asked, “What would you do?”
I told him about a project I had been working on for twenty years. Every time I saw a great painting, heard a wonderful concert, read an interesting novel, noticed a great scientist, became aware of a successful and humane person in business or government I wrote questions. I hoped to explore these questions with the people who created the paintings, performed the concerts, wrote the novels, indeed, all the people I’d come to admire in my life.
"Do this,” he said. “Do it now.”
So I took a year’s sabbatical and off I went on a wonderful explore.