Friday, June 03, 2022

When We Turn Our Assumptions Into Questions

When my wife Jennifer tastes something she doesn't like, she'll invariably say, "This is disgusting . . . Here, taste it!" And she'll hold her fork out to me. I typically decline saying something like, "I'll take your word for it." By the same token, if I find something unsavory, she always asks for a bite, even as I caution her that she won't like it.

There was a time when I wrote this off as a strange, but harmless quirk. I mean, who in their right mind would taste something that a loved one had already declared disgusting? But I now know exactly what kind of person would do that: a curious one.

"Be curious, not judgmental" is a line that is often misattributed to the great American poet Walt Whitman, but whoever first said it must have been inspired by someone like Jennifer, who has never lost her curiosity. She will be the first to tell you that she is "judgmental," but when she says that she's talking about well-considered opinions about superficial things like fashion or design or best business practices. When it comes to important things, like people, she is intensely curious. I can't tell you how often I've introduced her to someone I've known, I thought intimately, for years, only to have her later retell their life story to me, full of fascinating things about which I knew nothing. She even tells me things about my own family that I didn't know. And it's because she's curious, she asks questions, she genuinely wants to hear their story. Even more impressive, she listens, because that's what curious people do.

There was a time, long ago, that her questioning of others sometimes embarrassed me. I worried that they would think she was prying, but she has time and again, through her curiosity, unveiled the amazing humans that exist behind my stereotypes and judgements. She inspires me to be better.

Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter, journalist and author of the book I Never Thought of it That Way, Mónica Guzmán, urges, "Turn your assumptions into questions." She asserts that this is the secret to bridging the divides that threaten our world today. I'm certainly guilty of making assumptions abut people, especially those I don't know. When someone, for instance, votes for someone I find disgusting, I can very easily fall into the logical fallacy of judging that person to be disgusting as well. When I think things like, "They love their guns more than their children," I'm being judgmental. When I instead ask them questions, when I try to do what Jennifer does and learn their story, that's when I discover how wrong I am: they are not, in fact, sociopaths, but rather humans who have had experiences, often fascinating, that have lead them to vote or believe the way they do.

This doesn't mean that I have to start voting or believing the way they do, just that I owe it to them, and to myself, to base my opinions about people on something real. In my mind, they have become monsters, but when I allow myself to be curious, I discover their humanity. As Guzmán says, "Those things that are under-represented in your life will be over-represented in your imagination." 

Martin Luther King wrote, "I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other and they don't know each other because they don't communicate with each other, and they don't communicate with each other because they are separated from each other."

One of the most challenging things, I think, is to continue to be curious. We're born curious, of course, but over time, too many of us, slowly at first, but then completely, replace our curiosity with judgment. I'm not going to place all the blame on our schools, but it's hard not to see that an educational model that emphasizes correct answers over amazing questions, teaches us that judgment is more important than curiosity.

Just last night, I told my wife how much I admire her and am inspired by her unquenchable curiosity. Indeed, I've come to understand that this is probably why we've been together for 38 years, most of them happy. I mean, she hasn't even lost her curiosity about me. And let me tell you, when someone is curious about you, when they ask questions, when they listen to your story, it's impossible to not love them, at least a little. And love, we all know, is the answer.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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