The best defence against melancholy is curiosity.
That’s a big statement, so I’ll tell you how I got there.
Recently, at the recommendation of a friend (thanks to that person!), I subscribed to the podcast ‘Conversations’ with the ABC’s Richard Fidler. As a first listen, I went for Fidler in conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert is best known as the author and protagonist of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’.
Now, the closest I’ve been to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is staying in the same villa as Julia Roberts in Padang Padang one time. That is to say, I haven’t read the thing. Though I have heard it is everything from an essential antidote to spiritual malnourishment to capitalist chicanery. So, I will reserve my judgment on the book. But I will freely admit that I quite enjoy the author herself.
I’ve heard Gilbert speak a few times, on other podcasts here and there. She has this sort of upstairs, on the surface, energy about her. Despite her astonishing success, she has an Oprah-like ‘work in progress’ vibe, and an earnestness to listen and learn. I like those people, and I quite like Gilbert.
So anyway, at one point in the podcast Fidler, a master conversationalist, angled the discussion toward the topic of curiosity. Both agreed that curiosity is a virtue. And, like patience and courage, it can be learnt.
Gilbert’s campaign for curiosity is the by-product of a campaign against the teaching and preaching of ‘passion’. Gilbert says that that ‘follow your passion’ is actually an unfair piece of advice. If a person knows their central burning passion, then odds are they are already following it. For that is the very definition of passion.
However, most average punters, like you and me, don’t know, or don’t have, a central burning passion. And there is nothing wrong with that. Gilbert says that on the back of this, the counsel ‘follow your passion’ can make us feel inferior, like something is missing from our lives.
The alternative, Gilbert says, is to preach curiosity. Rather than get hung up on finding or manufacturing a passion for ourselves, in order to feel whole, she says we ought to just get a little curious. Cutely and oh-so-truly, Gilbert says that this is a far more democratic call to arms because we can incorporate it into our daily lives. Curiosity does not ask us to shave our heads and move to Nepal, or, if you’re my father, venture daily into shark-infested waters. Passion will do that. With curiosity, the stakes are lower. All we have to do is turn our heads a bit further, and gaze a little longer.
The difference between an incurious person, and one with curiosity, can be understood with a single rose. There are one hundred pleasures in a single rose. An incurious person will glance at the rose and grasp but one. A curious person will stop and stare, admire its rouge, nuzzle in its perfume, wonder at all the different colours none more pretty than a dusky pink, wonder at how some are tall like a tree and others short and wide like a bush, and do they live through winter or do people plant new ones every year and how come the ones that come in boxes in romantic films have such long stems, and then feel 93 other feelings. If we are curious enough, often enough, our curiosity may lead us to a central burning thing, a passion. Or, it may not. But if it never does, a life lived with curiosity will still be richer for it.
Richard Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ ends with a warning: ‘Be not idle, be not solitary’. Gilbert and Fidler end in agreement- that curiosity is the best way of finding something to do, and someone to do it with. And thus, curiosity is the best defence against an idle, solitary and melancholy life.
Thought Leader(s): Elizabeth Gilbert, Richard Fidler
Podcast(s): Fidler, R (2015) Conversations, ABC.