A full bladder when one is camping in a tent a long walk from the bathroom is never welcome. It meant a roll and wallow to get out of the sleeping bag and slip on sandals and then a hunt in the dark for the tent’s zipper. Maybe that is why most people my age camp in RVs. Or maybe they didn’t choose teaching as a career. I, however, did not curse my weak bladder as I traipsed up the trail to the bathroom last month. I shot the flashlight into the trees to catch eyes of the owl I had been hearing while in my sleeping bag. I also wondered how many species of moth I would find pasted to the wall of the bathroom. And I gave thanks for one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me—insatiable curiosity about the world.
No matter how big the bug or creepy the spider, my parents’ response was never “eek” or “yuck”, but “What species is it?” Mom let her boys bring home snakes, lizards, and spiders and keep them in our rooms. But it was not just about the natural world we were curious. Mom and Dad always had their noses in a book, so we grew up bookish and curious about history and literature. At the table, Dad eagerly entertained questions about metaphysics, epistemology, and theology.
I have found something healing and redemptive about all this knowledge for its own sake. Curiosity takes us outside ourselves and frees us from incessant self-concern. It carries us into a quiet world that exists apart from us and with no interest in us. When our questions lift us into the vast universe of what we don’t know, we see our smallness, the boundaries of self. Once small, we are often free from the afflictions of our pride and ambition.
Even as a boy camping at Cape Perpetua and trekking across the bridge and up the road to the bathroom, I was often too curious to be afraid of night’s sounds and shadows. I thought I might see the raccoons, skunks, or pack rats that raided camps. Delight in discovering and knowing made my fears an after-thought instead of my first thought. Curiosity and courage strengthen us to face the new and the unknown.
I am also grateful for curiosity because it has made knowing more important than having. It has saved me from the wild American scramble after more and more stuff. The trails I haven’t hiked and books I haven’t read are the best retirement package I can imagine. And perhaps the next time Teckla and I camp in our duct tape and nylon tent, I will discover several new species of moths spread like a constellation against the dark brown of the bathroom wall. I may also discover the effects of uric acid on the growth of salmonberry, alder, and spruce.