My three year old turned to me, and asked, urgently, What’s it called when an animal is NOT nocturnal?
Hmm. I don’t know. That’s a good question.
He paused for a few moments and, maybe one day when me and Nicholas are big we can go and find a dragonfly. And then we can ask the dragonfly, “what’s it called when you’re not nocturnal?” and then the dragonfly will tell us.
My usual impulse would be to immediately Google such a question. And if I had done that I would have possessed a new random fact to store in my brain. The problem is I would have missed my son’s lovely plan to go and talk with a dragonfly. And that made me think— I’m so glad I didn’t look it up.
I usually justify looking things up— often mid-social gathering— because, otherwise, it would “bother me.” Not too long ago, if I had a nagging question I’d go ask my dad or somebody who knows lots of things. Or maybe I would look it up in an encyclopedia. Or we’d all have a guessing game at the answer. Either way, I had to deal with the sense of “bothering” for some amount of time.
And I did deal with it. Because I wasn’t addicted to knowing every answer. I was more content to wonder.
Curiosity is a great thing. But when we are able to satisfy it instantaneously it can start to rule us. Just as sexual desire can rule a person or the desire to eat can rule a person, or the desire to make money can rule a person, so can the desire to know. And when the desire itself rules us, it ends up perverting the very point of that desire. The tyrannical desire for sex perverts love. The tyrannical desire for food perverts health. The tyrannical desire for money perverts generosity. And the tyrannical desire to know answers perverts wonder.
Just think about it. How often do we say, “I wonder…” anymore? Not very often (unless you ARE a three year old) because we rush right through the opportunity. We don’t really reflect on the things which spark our curiosity or confuse us or puzzle us or amaze us or even frighten us. We don’t stop to reflect and so we don’t get the chance to imagine or think through or discuss or be creative or appreciative. We don’t get the chance to process what sparks our curiosity and let it fill us with life and joy. Instead, we quickly suppress the wonder with the literal touch of a button. “Who wrote that song?” “What is this place called?” “Did pilgrims and Indians really celebrate thanksgiving?” “What is my best friend doing now?” “Is my three month old acting normal?” “Is there proof for God’s existence?” All of these questions we can easily answer before even speaking them. But I’m just not so sure that we should.
Google is great in emergency situations or when I’m lost in a new city (or my own) or when I can’t remember a recipe or I’m trying to find one of my favorite songs. But I don’t need to know every possible fact. Knowing facts is not the same thing as having wisdom. Gathering as many facts as I can, at the expense of wonder, does not make for a better life. It is a sort of intellectual greed and it conditions unhealthy impulses.
So how many facts do we actually need? Just like with money, it’s sort of an individual question. But I’m sure most of us could cut back on looking up the totally random questions (how old is Miley Cyrus?) whose answers serve no purpose other than to calm our curiosity (and then rev it up again when we see links and ads.) Or at least, we could write all the questions down to look them up at a different time after we’ve given ourselves a little space to wonder.
My son and I did eventually figure out what you call an animal who is not nocturnal. No, we didn’t ask the dragonfly, but we didn’t Google it either. We figured it out because we were talking about it with my grandfather at dinner a week later and he knew the answer. But I won’t give it away. If you’re interested, maybe you can go and find a dragonfly.