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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Cultivating Curiosity in 2019 | by Max Dugan

At the beginning of each Gregorian New Year I take the annual (re)birth as an opportunity to reflect on connections, habits, and feelings of the previous 365 days. Pondering the meaning and pull of interfaith work sits at the core of this meditation. Why do we continue to engage in this often challenging, discomforting, and humbling activity? Couldn’t my time be better spent elsewhere? Does anything we do really make a positive difference?

The answer bubbling to the surface in nascent 2019: the foundation of my interfaith work is curiosity. This just resonates. In general, there is something inherently harmful in social complacency. In this particular socio-political context, the value of empathy and active engagement with the other is more apparent than ever. And in my personal experience, satisfaction with one’s current awareness reduces the sacred joy that comes with connecting and learning about whoever sits across from you.


The anecdote that most perfectly exemplifies this ethic of curiosity is an experience I had with several religious leaders in West Chester. As our conversation came to close, I admitted that I was still learning about the respective religious traditions such that I considered myself a student of everyone else, including the young folks with whom I work. The far more experienced religious leaders made eye contact and chuckled. Perhaps noticing I was a bit embarrassed, the eldest among them replied “join the club!” Another added, “I swear, I learn something new every day, and it’s usually about something I am supposed to be the expert in.” I best remember the line: “pastoral work is the vocation of perpetual learning.”

Ibn ‘Arabi, the famed 12th and 13th century Sufi thinker, considered one of the greatest sins to be boredom because the world was such a profoundly interesting place that to look outside and go “meh” would have amounted to a betrayal of all the wonders of creation. Chew on that for a little. I see a parallel with my thinking about interfaith work: to disengage with others because we think we sufficiently understand them is to reject the profound joy inherent in learning about other perspectives.


As any past reflection must be accompanied by future resolution, here is mine: cultivate curiosity. Excitement to learn is not like a (non-rechargeable) battery that depletes without regrowth. Like a muscle, you develop curiosity. You work at it. Over time it grows more capable and durable. Somedays you overuse your curiosity muscle and need to rest up—the best curiosity athletes know that proper rest is essential to curiosity training! However I get there, interfaith work will be at the core of my curiosity regimen because curiosity is at the core of my interfaith work. Now, for the challenges and joys of the actual work.

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