In Defense of Curiosity
A short time ago a cartoon appeared depicting two miners looking up in surprise and saying with undisguised horror, "Here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!"
In strange and subtle ways, it was indicated to me that I should feel somewhat ashamed of that cartoon, and there certainly was something the matter with a woman who wanted to see so much and to know so much.
Somehow or other, most of the people who spoke to me, or wrote to me about it, seemed to feel that it was unbecoming in a woman to have a variety of interests. Perhaps that arose from the old inherent theory that woman's interests must lie only in her home. This is a kind of blindness which seems to make people feel that interest in the home stops within the four walls of the house in which you live. Few seem capable of realizing that the real reason that home is important is that it is so closely tied, by a million strings, to the rest of the world. That is what makes it an important factor in the life of every nation.
Whether we recognize it or not, no home is an isolated object. We may not recognize it, and we may try to narrow ourselves so that our interest only extends to our immediate home circle, but if we have any understanding at all of what goes on around us, we soon see how outside influences affect our own existence. Take, for example, the money we have to spend. The economic conditions of the country affect our income whether it is earned or whether it is an income which comes to us from invested capital. What we are able to do in our home depends on the cost of the various things which we buy. All of us buy food, and food costs vary with conditions throughout the country and world.
It took us some time to realize that there was a relationship between the farm situation and the situation of the rest of our country, but eventually wage earners in the East did feel the results of the lack of buying power on the farms in the Middle West. To keep an even balance between the industrial worker and the agricultural worker is an extremely difficult thing. Every housewife in this country should realize that if she lives in a city and has a husband who is either a wage earner or the owner of an industry, her wages or her profits will be dependent, not only on the buying power of people like herself but upon the buying power of the great mass of agricultural people throughout the country. The farm housewife must realize, too, that her interests are tied up with those of the wage earner and his employer throughout the nation, for her husband's products can only find a ready market when the city dweller is prosperous.
There is ever present, of course, the economic question of how to keep balanced the cost of living and the wages the man receives. The theory of low wages and low living costs has been held by many economists to be sound, for they contend what money one has will provide as much as high wages do in countries where living costs are also high.
We have gone, as a rule, on the theory, in this country, particularly in eras of prosperity, that high wages and high costs make for a higher standard of living, and that we really obtain more for our money, even though our prices are higher.
This question is argued back and forth, and the method by which one or the other theory shall be put into practice is an equally good field for arguments.
It may seem like an academic discussion, but any housewife should know that it is the first way in which her home brings her in touch with the public questions of the day.
The women of the country are discovering their deep concern as to the policies of government and of commercial agencies, largely because these policies are reflected in many ways in their daily lives. . . .
This correlation of interests is something that every woman would understand if she had the curiosity to find out the reason for certain conditions instead of merely accepting them, usually with rather bad grace.
To go a bit further afield, trouble with sheep in Australia may mean higher cost on winter coat, and a low standard of living in a foreign country may affect our own standards. The child whom we cherish within our home may suffer from health conditions quite beyond our control, but well within the control of the community or state. Having grown to manhood, this same child may be taken away from us and die defending his country and its ideals. Unless we have seen our home as part of this great world, it will come to us as somewhat of a shock that the world crowds in upon us so closely and so much.
So many of us resent what we consider the waste of war, but if in each home there is no curiosity to follow the trend of affairs in various nations and our own conduct toward them, how can we expect to understand where our interests clash or to know whether our Government's policies are fair and just or generally selfish?
Out of the homes of our nation comes the public opinion which has to be back of every Government action. How can this public opinion be anything but a reaction to propaganda unless there is curiosity enough in each home to keep constant watch over local, state, national and international affairs?
Therefore, anyone who fully appreciates the value of home life must, of necessity, reach out in many directions in an effort to protect the home, which we know is our most valuable asset. Even the primitive civilizations reached out from the home to the boundaries of their knowledge, and our own pioneer homes reached back into the countries from which they came and out into the new lands which they were discovering and subduing to their needs.
It is man's ceaseless urge to know more and to do more which makes the world move, and so, when people say woman's place is in the home, I say, with enthusiasm, it certainly is, but if she really cares about her home, that caring will take her far and wide.
People seem to think that having many interests or activities must mean restlessness of spirit which can only indicate dissatisfaction and superficiality in an individual. It may be that an interest in the home may lead one to dissatisfaction with certain phases of civilization, but the fact that one is active or busy does not necessarily mean that one is either restless or superficial. Some of the people who are the most occupied remain unhurried in what they do, and have the ability to relax and rest so completely in the time which is free, that they are less weary and give less appearance of hurry than many who fritter away hours of the day in unpurposeful activity.
Repose and a feeling of peace is an absolute necessity to a home. One may find it in a cottage, one may find it in a palace, or one may not find it in either. Repose is not a question of sitting still. It is a kind of spiritual attitude; no superficial human being can have it; real repose requires depth, a rich personality. The person possessing it can create a feeling that life flows smoothly and peacefully. Though they may never sit with folded hands, you may be able to sit with them and experience complete relaxation. It is something that comes from the soul, and no home gives complete satisfaction unless the persons making it can create this atmosphere. Repose, however, does not mean stagnation. . . .
It is perfectly obvious, of course, that intellectual curiosity, which makes you read history and science, will add greatly to your knowledge. Artistic curiosity will open up innumerable new fields in painting and sculpture and music and drama. If you have an opportunity to travel, you can add enormously to what you have already read in books or what you have experienced in art, by seeing with your own eyes some of the artistic masterpieces of the world in architecture and sculpture and in painting, by hearing great musicians and artists perform in their own countries.
You may even reconstruct for yourself, by seeing old cities and old country sides, civilizations that have gone before us. Egypt or India, the Venice of the Doges, medieval Europe--all can rise before us if we know our history and our art, and have cultivated curiosity sufficiently to have acquired a vivid imagination. . . .
A great soul may go down to the depths, but he can also soar to the heights, and the great Italian masters were never small, and all had the power of rising to heights above the average mind. These things, however, will hardly be understood if, in addition to intellectual curiosity, you do not have what we will call emotional curiosity, because without that, these things will not become alive to us or speak of the human element which has gone into all of them, and which alone makes them speak to us from generation to generation in a language which we can understand. . . .
Young people say to me sometimes, "I have tried so hard to talk to So-and-So," and I know at once that they have not, as yet, discovered curiosity. Curiosity will make you take such an interest in finding out what So-and-So has to offer as a human being that you will soon find conversation flowing easily. Curiosity will prevent your being closed behind a barrier, and will add, day by day, to your imagination and make your contacts increasingly easy. . . .
For instance, I was traveling on a train once, and I noticed, across the aisle, a woman in tears. Our eyes met, and she came over to sit beside me. I soon found myself listening as the whole pitiful drama of her life unfolded before me. Her husband had been in the Army, but had left it when they married, and they had gone back on the vaudeville stage, where they had worked before. Two children had come to them, whom her mother cared for. As vaudeville actors do, they traveled from place to place, winter and summer, sometimes making fairly good money, sometimes having pretty lean years, always spending everything they had, but, on the whole, it was a gay life, and a happy one, for they loved each other. Then the dread disease of tuberculosis took hold of the man, and the Government took him back and gave him care in a Western hospital. She had to go on the road alone, to feed and house her mother and the children, and give her husband the little extras which meant so much to him. Now and then she would manage to get to see him. Six months before, they had a happy day together, and then came the telegram telling her that he was desperately ill, and, taking all she had, she went, only to see him die and to bring his body home. She was a realist and did not dramatize her situation, so tears were few, and even in her sorrow there was a certain gaiety, for she said, "We had good times, and I hope the children will have them too. Now I must be getting back to work."
Without curiosity, I would never have heard that story and I would have missed the lift which you get when you meet with courage that faces heartache and a future of hard work and anxiety and still can be gay, for this will mean much to you when your own road is rough, as it is sooner or later for every traveler in this most interesting world.
In its simplest form, curiosity will help you to an all-around education. That is why little children are so often living question marks. They naturally desire to know about the world in which they live, and if they lose that curiosity, it is usually because we grown people are so stupid. . . .
[What we talk of as personality is nothing more than the effect of experience and knowledge, filtering through the emotional system of an individual until it becomes part of his inner consciousness and radiates from it in what we recognize as personality. If we feel a person has a negligible personality, it usually means that that person has lacked the curiosity to see life and really understand it. It is quite easy to see a great many things and yet to be so lacking in curiosity and in understanding that one does not know what they mean.]
I went to a play once, and in a part which was really tragic, the audience laughed. It was not the playwright's fault, nor yet the actor's, but what was shown upon the stage was so foreign and inexplicable to that particular audience that, instead of seeming tragic, it seemed funny. Laughter and tears are closely allied, but on this particular occasion, it was not nervous laughter, the laughter that verges on tears, but quite patently an inability to believe that a situation such as that play described could exist. On the whole, that particular audience had never been curious about that particular phase of life.
In addressing a fairly rich city audience, I tried to describe certain conditions of life in a distant part of our own country, and thinking if I chose something which all of them possessed, and which was entirely lacking in the homes of the families I was trying to picture, it would mean something to them. I said that until the depression had forced us to set up relief and to find some projects on which women could work, there were innumerable families throughout certain portions of the country that had never known what it was to sleep upon a mattress. I was met with blank faces, and before I said another word, I realized that my audience was thinking, "Well, what did they sleep on?" because it had never occurred to them that it was possible to sleep on anything but a mattress. There might be poor ones or good ones, but that anyone did without a mattress was absolutely impossible for that audience to comprehend.
It is not always our own fault when we lack curiosity, for our environment may have prevented its development. The lack of curiosity in parents will often mean that they will try to eliminate it in their children, and thus keep their homes from stimulating the youthful urge to acquire knowledge.
A few years ago, when I was conducting a class in the study of city government, we took up one of the functions of the government--namely, public health. This is closely allied to housing, so I suggested that our group visit some of the different types of tenements. There was considerable concern among some of the mothers, for fear some illness might be contracted. It apparently never occurred to them that hundreds of young people lived in these tenements all the time, nor that, very likely, there entered into their sheltered homes daily people who served as delivery boys, servants and workmen, who spent much of their time in tenements; so, even if the sheltered children did not visit them, the tenement home radiated out all that was good in it and all that was bad in it and touched the home on Park Avenue. No home is isolated, remember, so why should we not have a curiosity about all the homes that must in one way or another affect our own?
On visiting the various types of tenements, I found again that the lack of curiosity makes a poor background for real understanding. To these children of the rich, I had to explain what it meant to sleep in a room which had no window, what it meant to pant on fire escapes in hot July with people draped on fire escapes all around you, what it meant for a women with her husband and eight children to live in three rooms in a basement, and why a toilet with no outside ventilation could make a home unhealthy and malodorous.
Lack of curiosity in these young people meant lack of imagination and complete inability to visualize any life but their own, and, therefore, they could not recognize their responsibility to their less-fortunate brothers and sisters.
It is a far cry from Marie Antoinette playing at farm life in the Petite Trianon to our comfortable, sheltered young boys and girls, who have always had economic security and at least all the comforts and some of the luxuries of life, but, fundamentally, neither Marie Antoinette nor these children of ease knew real curiosity, so they rarely touched the realities of life. They knew only their own conditions, and they might as well have been blindfolded for all they saw as they walked their particular paths in life.
. . . Perhaps you will tell me that you live in a small place where nothing ever happens, so you can have but few interests. This is not so.
The great experiences of life are the same wherever you live and whether you are rich or poor. Birth and death, courage and cowardice, kindness and cruelty, love and hate, are no respecters of persons, and they are the occasions and emotions which bring about most of the experiences of life. You cannot prevent unhappiness or sorrow entering into any life--even the fairy godmother of the legend could not give freedom from these experiences--but curiosity will insure an ever-recurring interest in life and will give you the needed impetus to turn your most baleful experience to some kind of good service. . . .
It is curiosity which makes scientists willing to risk their lives in finding some new method of alleviating human suffering, often using themselves as the best medium of experimentation. It is curiosity which makes people go down under the water to study the life on the floor of the ocean, or up into the air and out and over new and untried trails to find new ways of drawing this old world closer together.
I often wonder, as I look at the stars at night, if someday we will find a way to communicate and travel from one to the other. I am told that the stars are millions and millions of miles away, though sometimes they look so near, but it seems to me, at times, to be almost as hard for people who have no curiosity to bridge the gap from one human being to another. Perhaps the day will come when our curiosity will not only carry us out of our homes and out of ourselves to a better understanding of material things, but will make us able to understand one another and to know what the Lord meant when He said, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." And we might well add: "He that hath eyes to see, let him see."