As someone inherently curious, the saying – curiosity killed the cat – has never sat well with me. Does curiosity have to kill the cat? Can’t it just, like, help it find a mouse or something? Why does it have to be so extreme? And further, why so dark?
I resolved to find out.
At first, I researched the phrase’s etymology. But after about thirty seconds, my curiosity ran dry. Supposedly, it dates way back to Shakespeare in 1598. That fun fact didn’t resonate with me though. What did was the implications behind such a saying.
The meaning behind it
If you are curious, you will see things you can’t unsee. You will experience things you can’t undo. And, maybe, just maybe, you will find yourself in irreversible peril. That is what this saying claims. Although, it’s actually kind of sweet when you think about it.
Picture a dad telling their young child this so they stay safe on the playground. Imagine a grandma telling it to their adult grandchild who has a penchant for adrenaline.
It’s what you say to someone when you want them to be careful during their travels. Particularly when that person has a history of getting in cars with strangers. From that perspective, it’s a nice gesture. It’s wanting someone you love to stay in their lane. To not venture too far off lest they get pulled out to sea.
However, is curiosity something that should be spurned in such a way? It ultimately depends.
A mind expanded
Years ago, I came by the following quote (allegedly) by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”
At first glance, this thought made me panic. I worried that curiosity would cause me to see too much, to be forever changed by what I would learn. As if I would lose myself to the mysteries inside Pandora’s Jar (yes, jar).
My fear tied into the whole ignorance is bliss thing. The thought of never being able to return to a life of unawareness was scary. After all, what if on the other side of ignorance was something sinister or terrible? I would be like that one guy in the Matrix eating steak and making deals to get back to how things were before.
And yet, curiosity is a part of me. Much of how it likely is a part of you as well. To ignore it would be like to ignore a growling stomach or tired eyes. But much in the same way the food you eat or the bed you sleep on impacts how you feel, so too does the type of curiosity you choose to take part in.
Good versus bad
There is such a thing as good curiosity and bad curiosity.
Good curiosity is focused on fulfillment. It’s exploring a new topic of interest, it’s being open to a conversation. Bad curiosity deals with, for lack of a better word, drama. It’s tailing the murderer to see where they go. It’s following an eerie whisper down a dark alley. Shakespeare didn’t clarify which curiosity he was speaking to, but if I had to guess, it was the bad one.
Good curiosity leads to growth. Bad curiosity leads to… well… a cat dying.
Good curiosity should be indulged in, bad curiosity should be avoided. But they should not be lumped into one umbrella term. The saying suggests that curiosity in general is a bad thing. That it could lead you into danger. But what it doesn’t mention is the alternative.
As in, what happens if you choose to reject curiosity? You won’t starve or become sleep-deprived, but you will find yourself living a bland, boring life.
To go without food
To reject curiosity altogether is to reject new experiences. It’s a life where every day is the same because you don’t want to risk seeing what’s behind the closed door. And while its avoidance does keep you safe, it also keeps you entrenched in monotony.
It’s a life where today and 20 years from now look the same. The same friends, same home, same job. It’s a fine life, but is it the life you want?
Conversely, curiosity does open you up to risk. Yet with risk comes reward. Much in the same way you run the risk of getting sick from what you eat. It happens, but does that mean you only want to eat beans from here on out? Of course not.
It’s for that reason that curiosity should be broken out into two terms. Good curiosity and bad.
Seek the good
Distinguishing between good and bad curiosity comes down to the feelings they cause. Good curiosity makes you feel good. You might feel full of excitement, joy, or love. Things might simply feel right. Like you’re exploring something wonderful. Like you’re growing as a person or cultivating meaning in your life.
Bad curiosity makes you feel bad. Alarms go off in your head, red flags abound, something feels off. It’s talking with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable. Not in the pushing yourself kind of uncomfortable. More like, I need to find my friends and get away from this guy kind of uncomfortable.
Both good curiosity and bad curiosity have loud feelings associated with them. Try to notice those feelings as you navigate through your day.
Move forward with good curiosity
Don’t be the stereotype in the scary movie. Don’t move into a haunted house for curiosity’s sake. You’ll either be consumed by a zombie or have your soul switched with the kindly old caretaker who turns out not to be so kindly after all.
Indulge your curiosity but seek out the good kind, not the bad. Embrace the kind that allows you to learn, grow, and improve. The kind that makes you feel fulfilled.
Treat curiosity like any other necessity. It is part of who you are. Ignore it at your peril – just like if you were to ignore your need for sleep. And like a cat, know that even if things go awry, you’ll land on your feet.