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Sweatpants & Soul | For Here, Please | What Curiosity Really Kills

By Jen Violi

Back in the late 90’s when I worked at a Catholic university in the midwest, I attended a conference in New Orleans with other campus ministers. I didn’t know then that in just a few years, I’d be moving to New Orleans to reboot my life. Or that the conference would be a defining moment on the way to that decision.

But like the purple boa I bought from a shop on Bourbon Street, that trip left a trail of feathers to follow.

On the first day of the conference, I attended a panel discussion in a large, packed auditorium, air-conditioned and without windows. As I listened to the panelists, I waited for an issue central to the discussion to come up. It didn’t.

Like a bird trapped in a house, a question flapped frantically around inside me.

During the Q&A, I channeled my jitters into the courage to speak in front of a hundred or so people. I stood at a microphone in one of the aisles and asked the panelists to address the patriarchal language recited at least weekly in ritual, as well as how it perpetuated exclusion of women in the church.

As I recall, only one woman sat on the panel, and she took my question. Took it as in held it for a second and then dropped it because it was too damn heavy or hot or prickly. Whatever. She simply didn’t want it.

I don’t remember exactly what she said, although it was something to the effect of “Are you really wasting my time with that question? It’s not going to get you anywhere.” I do remember that even from forty feet away, she looked tired and worn out.

The bleak resolution of her answer surprised me, and I couldn’t rally my focus to generate a follow-up question.

Back in my seat, I tuned out the rest of the Q&A. I felt anger flush out warm through my face and neck. I didn’t like being dismissed and shamed into silence. I didn’t like that it seemed this woman also thought she was doing me a favor—as if her frown and slow head shake translated as: “Look, this line of questioning only leads to despair. Check your curiosity, sister. It’s only going to get you or your spirit crushed. I mean, look at me!”

That afternoon, I skipped other panels and breakout sessions in favor of karaoke, a hurricane, and some stellar live blues music, all of which offered more inspiration and enlivenment than the whole conference put together.

Within a few years, I packed up my feather boa and left my work in ministry to devote myself to creative writing, a decision that welcomed my curiosity and helped me to cultivate it.

Now, almost two decades later, I’m more inquisitive than ever. And this week, for some reason, the proverb “Curiosity killed the cat” keeps popping into my head.

Probably because it’s the underlying message of so much that’s unfolding right now in the country where I live. Ask the “wrong” questions, and you’ll get kicked out of the press room. Ask too many questions, and the interview will be over. Ask a question, and get attacked and shamed for doing so. Raise a question, and get thrown in jail.

The message “Curiosity killed the cat” seems to really only come from people who want you to shut up and do as you’re told. Keep quiet and go along with it.

And those people often won’t hesitate to make that proverb true, in one way or another. Killing voices, spirits, hearts, and bodies of people. All to maintain control.

What they don’t want us to know is how much power curiosity holds. I’ve learned that when anyone squelches my questions and manipulates me into feeling weak and powerless, it’s because they’re afraid. Because they know that a good question can knock down a big flimsy façade like that fake cardboard town in Blazing Saddles.

“Curiosity killed the cat” is just a thinly veiled threat.

I find much more value and truth in the poet Sappho’s words: “If you’re squeamish, don’t prod the beach rubble.” As in, when you ask questions, be prepared for the answers.

Case in point #1: when we were cleaning our house before moving out after college graduation, and I kept asking, “What is that smell?” in the kitchen. Until I finally reached up on top of the fridge and pulled down a bag of long forgotten potatoes, as well as a flood of primordial slime with it. And discovered a colony of maggots that had quietly and persistently been setting up shops and neighborhood associations and amusement parks.

Case in point #2: me at that panel discussion.

Yes, curiosity isn’t for the squeamish.

But if I let them, the answers I find can lead me to new questions, growth, and necessary change. That moment, when the woman on the panel answered my question, when I saw her exhaustion, when I didn’t find room for my voice, I knew I was in for a long battle if I stayed my current course. I also realized it wasn’t a war I wanted to wage. I longed to put my energy elsewhere.

My questions moved me into a new phase of my life. They helped me grow, and they didn’t kill me.

Things curiosity can actually destroy: your commitment to a relationship that’s sucking the life out of you. Your willingness to be stepped on, ignored, or patronized. Apathy, hatred, fear, anger, a multitude of stucknesses.

As a writer and a mentor of other writers, I’ve developed an affection for curiosity because it’s one of the most dynamic tools I have for effective revision, creative process flow, and more. What is that character feeling? How might I say the same thing in half as many words? Why does it matter that I’m writing this?

As a human living among other humans, I’ve also found curiosity to be my ally: when I want to move through an argument to understanding, when I’m not sure how to reach out to someone who needs it, when I need support. What did you mean when you said that? How can I lighten your load today? Would you please help me?

For a whole slew of reasons, from laziness to deliberate propaganda and protection of institutional agendas, people and systems will try to convince you to stop asking questions. They’ll remind you that curiosity killed the cat. They’ll give you graphic examples of what happens when you ask questions that shake things up.

This week, your FHP activity, should you choose to accept it, is to ask a question anyway.

And no need to prod all of the beach rubble. Just one question, in one moment. Especially when you feel apathy, hatred, fear, or anger, or when you experience stuckness of any kind. Be curious. Ask a question, and then notice what shifts. Feed into your inquisitive power.

You might ruffle some feathers. They might be your own. Your curiosity might help you find an open window and take flight, leaving behind a single purple feather to tickle someone else’s inquiry urge.

Your questions are sacred gifts, conduits of healing and transformation. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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