As we reflect on some of our aging heroes in these weeks in May and June, I am aware that one of the traits of the people on my list have a common thread: they are all curious. They include individuals who like to continue to learn and try new things and wonder about other people and cultures and how the world works.
Curiosity Increases Lifespan
Being curious may have killed the cat, as the saying goes, but in real life, it may just help to increase one’s lifespan! There is a growing body of research that suggests that curiosity is a key element to aging (The Essential Guide to Aging in the 21st Century: Body, Mind and Behavior). In this season of graduations and confirmations and the closing of another school year, when we celebrate a period of study that comes to a close, may we all consider how it is that learning helps us to be more curious and helps to prepare us for the next course of study whether in school or in real life.
Curiosity Into Later Life
In December 2017, Theodore Dalrymple noted two conversations he had with two curious older adults. One was a woman who was leaving a museum exhibit at the same time he was leaving; the other was an acquaintance who loved to attend lectures and read about history four hours a day. He notes how he “had the good fortune to meet two very old people whose continued pleasure in life put to shame (his) inclination to grumble about everything and nothing.” These women, who were in their 90s, displayed their curiosity and pleasure. For them, learning something new brought joy to their lives, as if they were young girls.
Another Aging Hero: Jack
One of my aging heroes was Jack. I have a lot of stories about Jack and again, I know a lot of people who have said over the years, “When I am Jack’s age, I hope to have the courage to do the high ropes course” — which he did at the age of 75 while chaperoning the youth mission trip! Or, “When I age, I want to be as caring (or authentic or curious) as Jack.”
Last August, I met Jack coming down the hall at church. He held a notebook and multiple books close to his body. I greeted him and asked if he had come from the adult interest group that I knew had been meeting. There was a 25-year-old member of the congregation who had done some reading of in the area of process theology and invited others in the congregation to join her in an introductory exploration of the topic. Jack had joined the group.
At the time, Jack was 94 years old. He had been retired from his engineering career 30 years. He had been widowed for over 20. He had lived with heart disease for 25 years and had traveled the world. He held his first position of leadership in the church when he was in his 70s and now he was studying process theology — a very different perspective and framework to think about the divine and our relationship with God and one another. I asked Jack how the class was going. “It sure is interesting,” he replied. And with a smile and a chuckle, he admitted, “I don’t completely understand it, but I am curious to learn more.”
That was one of the last conversations that I had with Jack. He died about six weeks later after a short period of declining health. It was a privilege to have known and learned from him. He often shared some tidbit of information that he had been researching on his own. I miss his insights and thoughtful and thorough research into all matter of topics.
A Curious Prayer
In honor of all those who inspire us to keep the fires of curiosity burning, I offer this prayer:
God of beauty and order,
God of words and ideas, pictures and sound,
We give thanks for the gift of curiosity that ever entices us to explore new vistas and dig deeper into ancient mysteries.
For the gifts of color that flow along a spectrum
And the harmonies of sound that dance with silence,
We recognize that you are the creator, the author, the artist, chef and teacher who instigates in us a desire to learn
as we discover the wonder of the ways in which you bring together elements previously unobserved,
as you combine thoughts and words that inspire us
and as you mix the elements and stir the ingredients into lessons for us to absorb and enjoy.
You tease us to reach beyond what we already know.
You offer us the nutrients to fuel this curiosity through gifts that spark us, spirit and mind, together.
You refresh our weary bodies through tastes born in the earth.
You invite us to explore your space as we move muscle and bone across the terrain formed in your time
and through the atmosphere we breath each day.
In this season, we celebrate the teachers who have inspired us into new fields of study and who have recognized the sparks of passion and interest and skill born within.
We celebrate the lessons learned that have laid the groundwork for yet another question to rise forth.
We are grateful for the inspiration that has led us to yearn to learn more.
May we be more like those heroes aging in our midst who practice curiosity everyday.
And may we relish the pleasure and satisfaction that comes as we continue to quench this thirst that curiosity sparks our whole lives through. Amen.