Choose Curiosity

“Choosing Curiosity Over Judgement,” Susan Ryder

This morning we continue our theme of what it means to be a people of curiosity as we consider the spiritual practice of choosing curiosity over judgment. We’ll begin with a couple of readings.


Luke 19:1-7
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees – Curiosity as a Spiritual Practice
“At the art workshop I took this summer, I met someone who didn’t vote in the last presidential election. We stumbled onto the topic. I was stunned because this was a creative person, and I just couldn’t imagine an artist or poet not realizing how important voting is. I wanted to convince her of the importance of voting. But I stopped myself. Believe me, that was a true exercise in self-control. Instead, I asked myself: Am I going to lose it every time someone tells me they didn’t vote or voted for the other candidate? How else might I respond? Does my negative judgment build the common good and foster understanding? Does it build connection? Where is my growing edge? I held my judgment at bay. I had other conversations with her over a five-day period, conversations that were very personal. They had nothing to do with politics. If I had pushed my agenda about voting, I have no doubt the other conversations would never have happened. I focused instead on human connection. I was curious about her life, who she is and what motivates her. We ended up sharing common experiences as women. This story does not end with me convincing her to vote. It ends — or maybe really begins — with me choosing curiosity over judgment…”

Typically our “intro” classes in seminary had over 100 students in them. We met two days a week in a large lecture hall, and then on third day we met in smaller groups – called precepts – to dig deeper into the material. These precepts were led by our professor or a grad student, and had about a dozen students in them. A few weeks into our Preaching 101 class, we were all given the same assignment – to write a sermon about the Zacchaeus story, which we would preach to each other in our precepts. I remember very clearly dreading the thought of hearing 12 sermons about the same story – how boring it was going to be to hear the same things said over and over again about Zacchaeus. Why couldn’t we just choose our own passage to preach from? Well as it turns out, I was wrong. In my precept we preached 12 very different sermons – each of us taking on the story from a different angle. This also happened in the other groups. We ended up practicing a Midrash of sorts, individually investigating a familiar story using exegesis and interpretation, hashing out meaning from our own unique experience and perspective.

One interpretation from a classmate that stayed with me all these years later was about how instead of judging Zacchaeus, as his disciples were doing based on his line of work, Jesus seemed more interested in getting to know him better. From the outside we see a rich man of small stature who engaged in work that was justifiably despised by many – collecting taxes from his fellow citizens for the Romans. Given how he made a living, he was certainly deserving of judgment and distain. But digging deeper, we also see a man who was so interested in getting to know what Jesus was about that he left the comfort and protection of his usual workplace, went out amidst a crowd of people who were very hostile toward him, and climbed up into a tree so he could see Jesus. Jesus noticed all of this, and rather than ignore him or call him out for his sinfulness, decided to invite himself over to Zacchaeus’ home.

As his guest, they certainly would have shared a meal – and what happens when bread is broken and wine is shared when Jesus is around? People get to know each other, walls are torn down, and transformation occurs, which certainly happened to Zacchaeus. According to the story, we are told that after Jesus invited himself over to his house, Zacchaeus repented of his ways – and maybe, just maybe, it was because Jesus took an interest in him. Jesus didn’t judge him. Jesus wanted to spend time with him. Can you imagine how that must have felt for someone as reviled as Zacchaeus? As a result, “Zacchaeus stood there and said, ‘Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’” He was transformed.

The story is a great example of what can happen when one chooses curiosity, generosity, or compassion over judgment. Just about any story has a better ending when we choose something else over judgment, doesn’t it? Jen Picicci writes, “Curiosity is the key to letting go of judgment. I became even more certain of this about a month ago. I had taken my daughter to story time at the library… As we left the circle, I noticed one mom, a woman who had two children with her, was not engaged with her kids at all. In fact, she was sitting at a table turned away from the group, playing with her phone. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to test out my new theory that curiosity would help me let go of judgment. My old thought would have been “Ugh, look at her! She’s not even paying attention to her kids! What’s so important on her phone that she has to look at it right this second?” … but this time, I consciously shifted the direction of my thoughts, trying to be curious about her actions rather than making assumptions about them. Could she be waiting for a really important email from a family member or friend? Is she using her phone to search for a new job? There’s something so freeing about giving a person the benefit of the doubt and coming up with possible reasons for their behavior that go beyond the obvious.”

Choosing curiosity over judgment as a spiritual practice offers endless possibilities – imagine if curiosity was our go-to response instead of judging? I can certainly be quick to judge someone else based on any number of factors – lately it happens most often regarding politics. But I can also respond with knee-jerk judgment based on where someone lives, what music they like, how they dress, and how they feel about dogs. But lately I’ve been working on choosing curiosity over judgment as my initial response to someone with whom I may disagree or have little in common – and it’s been an interesting, if not challenging exercise. For instance – my curiosity about my family tree has led to all sorts of information about my ancestors. Some of the most meaningful discoveries are not about my 8th great grandfather who immigrated from England in the early 17th Century, though that is certainly fascinating stuff. But my curiosity has also led me to understand and view both of my grandmothers, whom I judged somewhat harshly based on my relationship with them, in a new light based on their own family history.

Curiosity as spiritual practice can certainly go beyond family connections. Because we are in the midst of another election season, it’s easy to get dragged into debates about politics and political candidates. So I’ve been trying a little harder to respond like Jen Picicci and Sandra Fees (from the reading I shared earlier). Instead of reacting with instant judgment and derision when someone expresses a view opposite of mine about a candidate or an issue I care about, if it is possible to do so I try to ask questions and find out where they are coming from, as opposed to arguing with them, or just shutting down and walking away. Lately that’s been getting harder and harder to do as we become more polarized as a society – which means it’s more important than ever to try. The story of what happened to Zacchaeus inspires me to keep trying.

Michel Foucault, (The Masked Philosopher) writes: “Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity [is seen as] futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes ‘concern’; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.”

Curiosity evokes concern – it evokes the care one takes for what exists and what could exist – I love that. What exists and what could exist. Taking time to reflect and choose our response rather than reacting, well it is not easy. It is work to be sure, spiritual work. Ultimately the wider path of curiosity is more nuanced than right and wrong. It is a creative process that focuses on potential and possibility, connects us to inner wisdom, allows the spirit to move freely, and grows empathy and connection to others. That said, in nearly any situation we can choose between two mindsets: a judgmental one, or a curious one. For example: Someone says something or posts an opinion on social media with which you disagree. You might argue or judge her and write her off as foolish, or you might ask a few questions, such as genuinely inquiring what beliefs or life experiences led her to those conclusions. If you choose curiosity, you might learn a new perspective, or experience empathy, or practice respectfully disagreeing with someone. Or you might even change someone’s mind – something judgment rarely accomplishes.

Here is an exercise to consider – every time a feeling of annoyance, irritation, impatience, or anger arises in response to what someone else says or does, here are two questions to be curious about: The first is about the person that is the trigger of my feeling: what conditions would lead a person to act that way, and, in those conditions, what are they feeling and needing? The second is to ask what’s going on in me that would cause me to have the reaction I’m having? Sandra Possing writes,When you’re curious, you forget to be afraid. When you’re curious, you’re less attached to your ego and getting things right. When you’re curious, you’re open to new ideas and possibilities.” The opposite of this sort of curiosity is judging. “When you default to judging things, you contract. You shut yourself off to the limitless possibilities all around you. It may feel good temporarily, because it makes you feel superior, which feeds the ego. But, in the long run it just breeds negativity.”

Curiosity is open. Curiosity is kind. Curiosity leads to more accurate conclusions. Ask questions. Seek alternative possibilities. Assume positive intent. Judgment is the easy way, but it can be so triggering, and tends to lead us astray. How do we save our world? Curiosity. Maybe it all starts with curiosity – with kindness, acceptance, love. Maybe we can begin to save ourselves and our world when we can release judgment and open up to curiosity.

Where could you let go of judgment and replace it with curiosity this week?