Holy Curiosity

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Coming out of a restaurant in Asheville this past summer — during that wonderful respite when we were slowly returning to restaurants — I saw what has become commonplace over the past several years: A protest taking place on one side of the street and a counterprotest on the opposite one. One set of yells, cheers, and signs came at us from our left, and another competed with them from our right, creating a cacophony of sound in which we couldn’t discern any message at all. 

As we got closer, I saw that on one corner they were waving large white flags with only the single word “Jesus” in big letters, and dancing to songs coming from a boom box, presumably the latest in Christian rock. OK, not our thing, but the presence of a police officer indicated they had the appropriate permits, and all was well. As our path took us to the other corner, I couldn’t imagine what the “counter” to this rally could be. 

It didn’t make any more sense when we got there. On this street corner people had megaphones and posters; but nothing as large or legible as the flags across the way. Then a man came up to us with an invitation to find Jesus and repent for our sins. Okaaaay. I gave him the general response I give to anyone with a religious sales pitch: “I’m good, thanks.” But I had to ask: “Aren’t you and the people over there promoting the same thing?” He looked where I was pointing across the street as though he hadn’t even registered the presence of the other group. Hadn’t noticed their flags or loud music, much less their message. “Who, them?” he asked. “I have no idea who they are.”

Us and them. Even when we’re on the same side, we’ve become so mired in polarization and conflict that we automatically view an “us” and a “them.” We feel it all around us: Right and left, red and blue, North and South, young and old. Do you love what I love? Do you love it enough? Do you oppose what I oppose? Do you say it loudly enough? We’ve become so fragile, we don’t even need a street to divide us; as we’ve seen all too clearly, something as thin and flimsy as a mask readily splinters us into factions.  

Conflict, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Healthy conflict is necessary for motivation; it maintains checks and balance. Without healthy conflict — “good trouble” — progress comes much more slowly, if at all.

But what we’re living through, and suffering from, in this moment is substantively different. “High conflict,” says Amanda Ripley, who has written a book by the same name, “is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. … We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side. When we encounter them, in person or on a cable news channel, [in our communities, in our families,] we might feel a tightening in our chest, a dread mixed with rage, as we listen to whatever insane, misguided, dangerous thing the other side says.” [1]

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institute, suggests an interesting theory for why we are experiencing such polarization and high conflict right now. Though numerous studies have shown that religious affiliation dropped significantly over the past two decades, “ideological intensity and fragmentation,” he writes, “have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations.” [2]

What does that mean? It means we’re all in. It means we are loyal to our ideas and beliefs to a fault. It means we ritualize disputes like antiphonal liturgy: When you say that, I say this. It means we have a hard time listening to those who feel differently than we do; that we sometimes even experience their differing beliefs as a personal affront.

Yet our ideas are not worthy of unconditional love. People — those who see the world the same way we do and those who don’t — are.

We read on S’lichot: “Imagine how our lives might be if everyone had even a bit more of the wisdom that comes from seeing clearly. Suppose people everywhere, simultaneously, stopped what they were doing and paid attention for only so long as it took to recognize their shared humanity. Surely the heartbreak of the world’s pain, visible to all, would convert everyone to kindness.” [3]

The heartbreak of the world’s pain is not only visible to us all, but visceral, and we are in desperate need of kindness. So these High Holy Days, I’d like us to focus on how we can work through the polarization, escape high conflict, recognize and re-prioritize our common humanity. There are several tools we need to get from here to there, but two of the most important are humility, which I’ll talk about on Yom Kippur; and what I’d like to talk about today — curiosity.

Never was there a prophet like Moses, our tradition teaches. But just what made Moses so special? We know little of his childhood: Once Pharaoh’s daughter takes baby Moses out of the Nile and into the palace, we don’t hear of him again until he’s already grown up. We get a glimpse of Moses’ sense of justice when he encounters the brutality of Israelite enslavement in Egypt. But then he flees, marries, and settles down as a simple shepherd in Midian. 

The first real indication of Moses’ unique gift comes at his encounter with the burning bush: While grazing his father-in-law’s flock, the Torah says: “He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’” (Exodus 3:2-3) It’s in that moment of holy curiosity that God calls out to him.

Moses turned aside. He gazed. He wondered curiously: “What’s going on here?” He took the time to mine below the surface, and he encountered nothing less than the presence of the divine.

It doesn’t take ages, or even a burning bush, to do what Moses did; it just takes curiosity and interest. 

The first way we access and demonstrate genuine curiosity is simply to listen.Have you ever had an experience in a doctor’s office when you felt like the physician was rushing, uninterested in the details of what you were experiencing? On the flip side, can you remember what it felt like when a doctor really seemed invested in understanding? According to studies, “on average, doctors interrupt patients after only eleven seconds of listening to them explain what ails them.” Of course, we know doctors are busy. Their time is understandably limited. We’re guilty of hurrying conversations along, as well. Yet, here’s the kicker: “When doctors don’t interrupt, patients stop talking on their own just six seconds later. That’s all the time they need to explain themselves; just seventeen seconds.” [4] But they rarely get those seventeen seconds, and those seventeen seconds make a world of difference.

“The power of listening doesn’t lie just in giving people the space to reflect on their views. It’s a display of respect and an expression of care.” [5] Listening to someone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. Hearing someone’s views doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned our own. Listening is an opportunity to form a connection with a person, even if we don’t connect with their beliefs or ideas. Listening is a way to validate someone’s experience; to make personal what we may otherwise generalize, to see what we might otherwise never see at all.

Perhaps my favorite “good listening story” this past year comes from the corporate world. Kamryn Gardner, a first grade student in Arkansas, took advantage of a class assignment about persuasive writing to pen a letter to her favorite clothing store, Old Navy. Her ask? Put pockets, real pockets, in all jeans, not just those designed for boys.

Dear Old Navy, I do not like that the front pockets of the girls’ jeans are fake. I want front pockets because I want to put my hand in them. I also would like to put things in them. Would you consider making girls’ jeans with front pockets that are not fake? Thank you for reading my request. Sincerely, Kamryn Gardner, age 7. [6]

Now, somewhere along the line, after Kamryn sent her letter, there was a mailroom clerk who opened it and allowed their curiosity to be piqued. They decided it had enough merit to pass up — perhaps to an assistant, who might have shared it with another assistant, who eventually brought it to the attention of an Exec. That Exec thought: “I know I lot of things, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a seven-year-old girl (at least not recently).” And so this Exec. shared Kamryn’s letter in a design meeting or a product development session, where, with more curiosity, they turned to one another and asked: “What do you think?” And eventually, several months after she wrote and mailed a letter, an Old Navy package arrived on the doorstep of a seven-year-old with a good idea. Kamryn Gardner received multiple gifts that day: Four pairs of jeans with real front pockets… and the gift of being heard.

The second way we access our curiosity, is this outgrowth of listening: Realizing just how much more there always is to discover and know — and that goes for all of us, learning from everyone

The Talmud tells us (in B’rachot 4a): “Acquire the habit of saying, ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lie.” What if we applied this principle to all of our interactions — especially with those who seem to be so different than us? What if instead of simply dismissing someone, we said to ourselves: “I don’t know” what experience he had in life that led him to feel so strongly about this. “I don’t know” what role model indelibly impressed this value on her. “I don’t know” what knowledge they may have that I am not even aware I am missing. Admitting our ignorance in this way does’t mean we simply acquiesce with regard to a dispute. Sometimes there clearly is a right and a wrong, or one value that needs to take precedence over others. But this approach can help us to consider the people who hold differing ideas with deeper curiosity. We may continue to disagree about many things, sometimes vehemently, but the more we know about someone, the more multi-dimensional we allow them to be, the harder it is to dehumanize them. Reaching agreement is not necessary to escape the polarization of high conflict; recovering our shared humanity is.

The ability of social media to divide us into “us” and “them” is well documented, and I know many who have unilaterally sworn off Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts, citing the damage they could feel those platforms inflicting upon their souls. Political posts, pseudo-science, pithy opinion masquerading as fact. I’ve felt that way myself, and, if I’m honest, some of my posts have probably contributed to that feeling for others, too. There have been occasions — like during my Sabbatical this past summer — when decreased time spent on social media has definitely felt like the lightening of a burden from my shoulders and my soul. 

But I don’t know that simply stepping aside helps the “us/them” divide to dissipate. If anything, I think the perceptions of two sides only grows stronger. You see, when I’m on social media, I discover that some people with whom I disagree deeply, also support some of the same causes as I do. I see that they follow some of the same teams, eat at some of the same restaurants, enjoy some of the same activities as I do. In even more complicated moments, I see that they are celebrating some of the same milestones, responding to events with the same concerns and depth of emotion — their family photos and funny cartoons and weekend activities remind me of… my own. If anything, I think it’s this blurring of a clear divide that makes us uncomfortable. The idea that an otherwise one-dimensional opponent is in fact multi-dimensional, more complex than we give them credit for, even — dare I say — more interesting. But precisely this kind of challenge to our understanding of others, the reintroduction of curiosity about who others are and what makes them tick, is key to escaping high conflict. 

So how do we grow in our understanding of others? How do we listen better, begin to fill in the blanks for what we do not know? The third key to maintaining curiosity is simply to ask more questions. “Increase your question-to-statement ratio,” Adam Grant says, and add new ones to your conversational toolbox. Grant’s favorite inquiry is: “How do you know? It’s a question,” he says, “we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others. The power lies in its frankness. It’s nonjudgmental—a straightforward expression of doubt and curiosity that doesn’t put people on the defensive.” [7] Also: How old were you when you formed this belief? How have you changed since then?

Amanda Ripley suggests these possible questions to help us respond with curiosity to those who feel strongly about something, especially when their strong feelings differ from our own: [8]

  • What’s the question nobody’s asking you?
  • What is oversimplified about this conflict?
  • What do you want to know about this controversy that you don’t already know?
  • What would it feel like if you woke up and this problem was solved?
  • Where do you feel torn?

“What evidence would change your mind?” is a useful question, as well. And, when all else fails (or even when it doesn’t) there are always these three simple words you can use almost anytime, anywhere: Tell me more. “Tell me more,” can push through any roadblock; rescue any dialogue that seems to be at a standstill; open new pathways to, if not agreement, then at least understanding.

Experience teaches that “it is impossible to feel curious while also feeling outraged. … We lose access to that part of our brain, the part that generates wonder.” [9] But the inverse holds true, as well. When we regain our wonder and respond with holy curiosity, it becomes impossible to feel outraged. When we listen, really listen; when we realize there is always more to discover and know; when we ask genuinely inquisitive questions, we chip away at the divide between “us” and “them.” We allow those with whom we disagree to become human again. We may not reach an agreement, but we can begin to heal. And we need to heal right now.

As we read in our prayerbook this morning, based on a teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Once two sages were walking very early in the valley and they saw the light of the morning star. Said one to the other, ‘This is how redemption will be. The dawn breaks with a single ray of light and bit by bit the sky is illumined, until morning comes and darkness is gone. So the redemption will occur little by little, growing steadily and gradually until the world if full of light.’

Mishkan HaNefesh, Rosh Hashanah, p. 165

“Do not be discouraged by the darkness,” our liturgy says. “Bring the day closer, step by step, with every act of courage, of kindness, of healing and repair. … Lift up every spark you can.”

Moses found a spark to lift up when he stopped to gaze with curiosity at the burning bush. We too will find sparks when we can cultivate our curiosity, as well. 

O, God, help us to respond to others with genuine interest. Guide us to see the potential to learn, to change, to grow from every encounter — encounters with those with whom we agree, and those with whom we disagree. Inspire us to meet not only face-to-face, but soul-to-soul — for what is a soul but a spark placed within each of us, a glimpse of the divine? May we gather sparks into rays, and rays into light, and let light heal and transform our world, from brokenness to wholeness, from fragility to strength, from discord to peace.

And let us say: Amen.

[1] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, pp. 3-4.

[2] Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic, April 2021.

[3] Mishkan HaLev, p. 135.

[4] Ripley, p. 42.

[5] Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, p. 159.

[6] https://www.npr.org/2021/04/17/98841

[7] Grant, p. 211.

[8] Based on Ripley, p. 296.

[9] Ibid, p. 28.

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