The Death of Curiosity

On Information Cocoons and the Frights of Surprise

Stephanie Phillips / 12.5.19

On September 11, 2001, I became a cable news junkie and would be crippled by the addiction for the next decade and a half. I remember sitting in the breakroom at my dental school with the other students, watching footage played and replayed of the planes hitting the towers, of the devastation at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA, and of pundits blindly guessing as to the source of the atrocities. 

Over the next few weeks, I sat in front of the TV whenever I could, to take in whatever information it would offer. When TV wasn’t an option, I tuned my car (and even Walkman!) to talk radio. Rarely was I without a voice in my ear. If the media would give me answers, I would gladly take them, and in the process I felt some measure of security. Information, I believed, was my safety, and I burrowed deeply into my perceived cocoon.

Fast forward fifteen years, and our family of four is packing up to move to Sydney. Over the next few months of preparing to leave, then leaving, then acclimating to a change in culture, my world is turned upside down: I’m in the Southern hemisphere, it’s the middle of summer in January, my kids are starting new schools, my husband is starting a new job, and I’m left flattened by all the differences between American and Australian life. And honestly, it’s all the little things that got me: people saying arvo instead of afternoon; sitting on the right side of the car to drive; and a brand-new absence of cable news punditry.

At first, it was disorienting not to have those voices in my ear — but quickly, it became freeing. I left those empty spaces alone and listened to them fill with the sound of children crying — nope, wait, that was the kookaburras. Or I chose the content I would hear, which typically turned out to be classical music or apolitical podcasts. I read news occasionally on my phone — mostly through Twitter, again curated by me — but spent most of my time away from it, occasionally peeking online to see who was offensive/offended on a given day but often blissfully unaware from my across-the-ocean perch.

My anxiety level — sky-high before we left Atlanta, propelled by my own chemistry as well as insomnia and fears of (school) shootings — plummeted. I began to sleep soundly, without pharmaceutical intervention. I breathed deeply. I was unmoored from my fifteen-year security blanket, and I had never been freer — or felt safer.

This is a common theme in my life: my clinging to an ill-conceived object of safety, only to find out it was never my true protection in the first place. When I moved to Savannah after my first year of dental school, I brought a handgun (illegally across state lines, I might add) — and spent the summer being terrified I would misuse it. When I found out I was pregnant with our first child, I read books on sleep training and What to Expect and found that none of them remotely prepared me for the struggles — or sleeplessness  — he, and we, would face. Parenthood, honestly, is the thing that has wrecked me the most in life, and I mean that in the best possible way. My children killed the mother I was going to be: the law-adhering, book-abiding, tough-loving mother whose greatest lessons to teach were personal responsibility and “the world’s not fair.” Important truths, to be sure, but now I’m much more concerned with whether my sons have space to discuss their feelings and how much of a premium they’ve placed on kindness rather than grades. I’m no longer the parent I had planned to be, debating over spankings or timeouts, but some new creature who reads books like The Emotionally Intelligent Child instead of BabyWise.

This identity shift has been brought about not by instruction, but by relationship. Much of my thoughts on raising kids owe to a friend who has a psychology background and is well-versed in research and evidence-based parenting, and through her unintentional tutelage I have learned that some of the techniques I formerly relied on were either based on convenience or were just props that bolstered my own self-worth and sense of safety through predictability.

It’s the light behind the eyes that gets me going now, in my own face and my children’s, rather than a demonstrable set of behaviors on perfect repetition. And this light dims every time we comfortably revert to relying on what feels familiar and safe rather than seeking to question and understand. It’s the difference between security blankets and real relationship: trading what is predictable for what is risky, what is easy for what is difficult. It’s the difference between death and life.

The aforementioned friend and I were recently discussing a distant acquaintance, and my friend said this: “She’s just not…a curious person, you know?” And I did know. Because that’s who I used to be, and that’s what it feels like so much of our culture has given way to: a death of curiosity. We don’t care about others’ stories as much as we do our categorizations of them, because these lines and categories make us feel safe; they divide into us and them to make sense of the world. If my children’s behavior is good or bad, I can reward or punish accordingly, without any thought about what may be motivating them, or without any hard discussions about feelings. If the pundit on the news is on the right or left, or the member of my party or their party, I can embrace her or write him off without considering his point of view — all that extra work avoided! 

In closing ourselves off from curiosity, from new or different ideas, from entire populations of people, we shut the door on surprise. On imagination. On empathy. On life.

A few years ago, my dad offered to take me and the kids to a naval museum near my parents’ home. My older son on the spectrum had a hard time not flitting between exhibits on his own timing; he doesn’t like to stay still in spaces like that. My dad grew frustrated and eventually we came to verbal blows over it. I had to explain to him — like I had had to explain to myself, and often still do — that my son wasn’t being bad, but that he experiences life differently and therefore behaves differently. My dad took the information onboard, luckily, and didn’t turn into Logan Roy from Succession, who, when he heard Kendall explain that his own son found transitions hard, leant on mocking him rather than seeking understanding — a weak and self-protective move if ever there was one.

I don’t mean this to be, ultimately, a political or even parenting post. I mean it to be a Christmas post. Because when we don’t open ourselves to other stories, we miss the ridiculous glory of Christmas. “The Gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel,” wrote Martin Luther, and what is a marvel if not something unexpected that ignites our curiosity, brings us to life, and turns on the light behind our eyes?

“Surprising, isn’t it?” says Amy Ryan’s character to Emma Thompson’s, in the movie Late Night, when the former’s rule-keeping old-school producer character gives way to the latter’s shift. As in, “You didn’t expect that from me, did you?” In allowing ourselves to enter into the discomfort of surprise, of curiosity, we open ourselves to new life. And new life — be it in an identity shift, a foreign country, or our children’s eyes — is the only antidote to death. 

A baby in a manger who turns out to be the end of death and beginning of freedom — surprising, isn’t it?


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