OF CURIOUS WOMEN AND DEAD CATS

DALE McGOWAN

A strange and disturbing character pops up in religion and folklore around the world and throughout history: the curious and disobedient woman. A god/wizard gives a woman total freedom, with one exception—the one thing she must not do/eat/see. She battles briefly with her curiosity and loses, opening/eating the door/jar/box/apple and thereby spoiling everything for everybody.

Curiosity didn’t just kill the cat, you see. It unleashed disease, misery, war, and death on the world and got us evicted from a Paradise of blank incuriosity and unthinking obedience.

Bummer.

Traditional religion isn’t the source of human hatreds, fears, and prejudices so much as a repository for them, the place we put them for safekeeping against the sniffing nose of inquiry. They sit protected by a veil of sacredness to which nothing is so threatening as curiosity. And since the story of the curious, disobedient woman includes three things powerfully reviled by most religious traditions (curiosity, disobedience, and women), it’s not surprising to find them conveniently bundled into a single high-speed cable running straight to our cultural hearts.

I could do pages on Eve alone and her act of disobedient curiosity with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: Was she really punished for wanting to know the difference between right and wrong, or just for disobedience? How could she know it was wrong to disobey if she didn’t yet have knowledge of good and evil? Then there’s Lot’s wife, poor nameless soul, a woman (check) who was curious (check) and therefore disobeyed (check!) instructions to not look back at her brimstoned friends and loved ones.

It’s not just a Judeo-Christian thing. Islam even coined a word for a disobedient woman—nashiz—and decreed an assortment of punishments for her in sharia law.

But neither Eve nor Mrs. Lot was the first nashiz woman to cross my path. That honor went to lovely, nosy Pandora.

Pandora was designed for revenge on humanity by the gods, who were angry at the theft of fire by Prometheus. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, each of the Olympians gave her a gift (Pandora = “all-gifted”). She was created by Hephaestus in the very image of Aphrodite. Hermes gave her “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and filled her mouth with “lies and crafty words.” Poseidon gave her a pearl necklace (which, unlike the deceitful nature, for example, was at least on her registry).

But the real drivers of the story were the last two gifts: Hermes gave her an exquisitely beautiful jar (or box) with instructions not to open it, while Hera, queen of the gods, blessed her with insatiable curiosity.

Nice.

Long story short, once on Earth, Pandora’s god-given curiosity consumed her, and she opened the jar/box, releasing war, disease, famine, and talk radio into the world. Realizing what she had done, she clamped the lid on at last, with Hope alone left inside.

This tendency in our mythic history to revile women and blame them for evil makes me angry. But if we want to improve on what we’ve inherited, we have to move past anger to comprehension. As a parent, I want to encourage the same impulse in my kids—not just railing against our more unfortunate tendencies but saying, “Why are we that way?” By knowing why an idea came into being in the past, we can look at the present and decide whether it makes any earthly sense to keep those ancient ideas alive. That’s freethought in a nutshell.

By disallowing curious questions, sacredness does the opposite—it allows bad ideas to be retained as readily as good ones.

Though I grew up in a churchgoing family, I was lucky that my parents never pushed any metaphysical answers on me. Instead, they instilled a strong curiosity about the world that made me burn to find real answers. This is a key point. I sometimes feel a sense of urgency from nonreligious parents to pack as much truth as possible into their kids’ heads so there won’t be any room for nonsense. When a freethinker’s child floats a wrong hypothesis, this little tic begins at the corner of the parent’s mouth. “Kill the Wrongness,” says a little voice, “before it takes root.” Sure, that might get the Rightness installed in that moment—but what about all the future moments, including 10,000 times when you won’t be in the room?

I blew this moment many times when my firstborn was young. That’s what firstborns are for. But by the time his younger sister came to me in kindergarten and said she had figured out how the earth turns, and I asked how, and she said, “I think it’s the wind blowing against the mountains,” I didn’t lean in and say, “Actually . . .”

Here’s the thing. Erin was never going to be 45 years old and still thinking that this (frankly captivating) idea is true. She would eventually learn what turns the world. Less certain in that moment was whether she would become a curious and disobedient woman, pursuing her questions wherever they led.

So instead of correcting her, I said, “Cool, I never thought of that!”—because it was and I hadn’t. Then instead of walking away with a stroke of red pen across her mind, she glowed, happy in the act of figuring the world out and all the more likely to do it again.

So no, we don’t have to fill our kids’ heads with the right answers. Instead, give them a curiosity that won’t rest until they find answers on their own, then revisit and revise them for the rest of their lives.

As a bonus, their self-acquired answers will have more staying power than authoritative answers from Mom and Dad. If I just give my kids a lot of answers that I discovered, tied up with a ribbon, they are robbed of the ownership that comes from the process of acquiring it. They end up standing on a foundation full of holes, knowing answers without knowing why they are true.

That’s one reason I’m raising freethinkers instead of atheists. If kids have autonomy over their own process, fueled by a ravenous curiosity about the world, they will know each brick in their worldview because they placed it themselves. That’s the road less traveled that my own parents put me on—and that has made all the difference.

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