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This I Believe ...

Judie McCoyd
1 June 2006

This essay was motivated by the National Public Radio series "This I Believe". Judie is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Rutgers University. Her neurobiologist friend is Paul Grobstein who had independently himself written a short essay on the "This I believe ... " theme. The two essays extend, and exemplify, a "yeah, but ..." conversation that Judie and Paul have been carrying on for several years in a working group of the Bryn Mawr College Center for Science in Society and in other Serendip on-line forums (cf A life of Faith is not without Doubt, and following postings).

Judie's preference for "passionate curiosity" over "profound skepticism" also relates to the pros and cons of Paul's use of the phrase "getting it less wrong". Your thoughts on that, on profound skepticism and passionate curiosity, and on "This I Believe ..." are welcome in an on-line forum.

I have a friend, a neurobiologist and consummate scientist, who believes in profound skepticism. He insists people who are scientists- whether in the traditional "hard" sciences or those of us, like me, in the social sciences- must adopt a perspective that includes strong skepticism about any claims for Truth with a capital T. In many, many ways, I wholeheartedly agree. I typically find that when pundits, politicians or even other academics assert something to be true, my first response is "yeah, but" and I then go on to name a possible exception to whatever rule may be proclaimed.

Yet, I've come to realize that profound skepticism is not what I believe in. This I believe- if we could all practice passionate curiosity, the world would be a much better place. Like skepticism, curiosity requires a stance that one doesn't already know it all. It requires an understanding that there are always new things to learn, indeed that knowledge itself is constantly evolving and changing based on new circumstances, new understandings and different people.

I truly believe that if we all practiced passionate curiosity, we'd build stronger human relationships and we'd discover new perspectives and knowledge bases that would allow us to grow a better world. Does this sound like the ramblings of a Pollyanna? Possibly. Even so, think about the power of truly being heard- of having someone listen to you closely with a curiosity about your beliefs, your history, the things that weigh heavy on your heart and the things that bring you joy. Being heard and understood can be a powerful force to allow self-esteem and self- knowledge to grow. I should know- as a therapist, I've had the privilege to explore many people's stories with them- to be curious about the way they make meaning in their life- and though they have grown and become healthier as a result of our work, I too have grown and continue to grow in my curiosity about the human condition, about the way we live our lives. My son recently commented- with an exceedingly irritated tone of voice- "You're always asking questions!" At 14, he's sure he already knows the answers- and is fairly resentful that I may actually want to know how his day unfolded or what he thinks about certain current events. Yet, like his older brother, I suspect he will eventually turn back into a person who has passionate interests and realizes that questions draw people closer.

Skepticism has a hard edge. In a society full of what Deborah Tannen calls the argument culture, skepticism maintains a certain cynicism and assumption of superiority. It assumes a certain confrontational position: That's probably very important in the world of falsifying hypotheses. Nevertheless, in the world of humanity, approaching people and life with the open heart and curious eyes of a child may move us more effectively into bridging the boundaries that divide us and creating a common understanding that we all have pieces of the truth (with a little t). Exploring how our understandings fit with others allows us to find real connection and joy in sharing our curiosity with others.


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