On being ... "curious"

 By Ingrid Sapona 

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist I read regularly. Over the years the topics he has chosen to write about have become more people-focused. For example, one of his best columns was about a friend who suffered from depression. He wrote about how when his friend’s depression first emerged, he made the mistake of suggesting things he thought might help lift the depression. He eventually realized, however, that his job as a friend in that circumstance was simply to acknowledge how awful it must feel to suffer from depression and to assure his friend that he’d be there. Unfortunately, his friend ended up committing suicide. 

Brooks recently published a book titled: “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.” Given his years of journalism experience and the shift I’ve noticed in him, I thought he’d have some interesting insights on this topic. So, I got the audio book from the library and I listened to it on my daily walks. 

He starts by telling a number of funny stories about himself. The stories drive home the idea that growing up, Brooks was more cerebral than emotional. One anecdote sets the stage best, I think: when he was four, a pre-school teacher told his parents that he doesn’t play with other kids – he just observes them. Of course, though that might not be great behaviour for a four-year-old, it isn’t necessarily bad for a journalist. 

Over the years, Brooks came to realize that if he was more connected to his emotions, he’d experience more joy in life. So, he set out to becoming more emotional and – as he put it – “fully human”. As he was working on becoming more connected to others, he couldn’t help notice an epidemic of anger and meanness. He believes much of the anger is attributable to people feeling unseen or unheard and therefore insulted, which then causes them to lash out. 

Brooks believes treating people with the consideration everyone deserves isn’t just a matter of being more open hearted. He thinks there are some basic social skills that can be learned. Things like being a good listener; learning how to reveal vulnerability appropriately; learning how to offer criticism in a way that’s caring; learning how to sit with someone who is suffering; and so on. He wrote the book to walk us through the skills it takes to know another human being and to make them feel known, seen, and heard. 

I think he’s onto something in terms of teaching social skills that help people connect. But, I almost stopped listening to the book when Brooks advised approaching conversations with others by “being curious”. Curious? Oh… that word is like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Being curious” has become such a pop culture buzzword, it’s almost become meaningless. 

Don’t know what I mean? Here’s are a few examples: the instructor in a mindful meditation class I was in told us that if we notice our mind drifting to some thought, rather than feel like a meditation failure, we should just “be curious” about it and then we should re-focus our attention on our breath. And surely you’ve heard “being curious” invoked as a rationalization for trying something or as an excuse for doing something. 

Giving yourself permission to “be curious” comes up a lot in self-help books and programs. And, when it does, there’s often an unspoken implication that we’ve all repressed the curiosity that comes so naturally to children. But, don’t worry – the self-help expert is giving you permission to reconnect with your curiosity. Seriously, if you’ve not noticed how much talk there is about “being curious”, now that I’ve pointed it out, I’m sure you’ll see how common it is. 

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against curiosity. Heck, I’ve always felt I have a healthy curiosity and I indulge it routinely (as I suspect you do, too). For example, at a recent get together with some new friends, the conversation turned to memorable vacations. A woman from Zimbabwe regaled us with a story about coming across a pangolin while on a safari. As she spoke, I was curious about what a pangolin looks like so I Wikipediaed it on my phone. I shared the picture with others – as they too were curious about what it looked like. No one told me – or the others who wanted to see the picture – to be curious. We just were – and none of us needed anyone’s permission to satisfy our curiosity! 

Approaching people with curiosity, as Brooks suggests, doesn’t seem to me to be a great way of connecting with them. If someone approached me with curiosity, I’d be more likely to clam up than open up. Where’s the compassion in curiosity? Being curious doesn’t really call for a give-and-take, which is the hallmark of a good conversation. I think people are more likely to engage with you if you show interest in them and in what they have to say. 

Though I disagree with Brooks’ suggestion you should approach others with curiosity, I do think taking an interest in others in a way that makes them feel seen and heard is important. Furthermore, I agree with him that attention to others is a moral act that has the potential to make a profound change in ourselves and society. 

Brooks’ book is an interesting and timely read (or listen), as the holidays will surely present many opportunities to practice the important skills Brooks talks about. In fact, I’d say that doing so may be the best gift you can give to others.


© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


On being … the return of the Christmas letter

 By Ingrid Sapona                

I know the date on the calendar is November 15th and so you’re probably scratching your head thinking it’s a bit EARLY for a Christmas letter. Yes, it is. And, as you continue reading, you’ll probably really wonder about the title, as you might have thought that today’s column is a Christmas letter. It is not. 

I’m writing today to encourage folks to send out a Christmas letter. At first I was just going to encourage those who stopped writing them to revive the tradition. But, truth is, I’d welcome receiving a holiday catch-up letter from any friend. And, as importantly, I think those who make the effort may find it surprisingly fulfilling.  

I don’t remember exactly when I got my first Christmas letter – or even which friends used to send them. My best guess is that many friends initiated them when they started having kids. Though their lives and schedules were hectic, I think the sheer variety of events that filled their year seemed worth reporting on. I loved hearing about all the goings on. The letters always brought a smile and huge admiration for the energy it took to manage it all, I’m not really sure when different friends stopped writing them. I do know that I first realized it recently, after a call with a college friend who used to send one. The conversation was a general catch-up – you know the kind: each person runs through how work is going, how parents and siblings are and, of course, what children are up to. (Interestingly, these days catch-up calls often touch on a few new topics: retirement plans and inquiries about grandchildren – actual or planned.)   

When my friend mentioned they were headed off to Europe soon for one daughter’s wedding, I wasn’t surprised. I knew she worked abroad and it wasn’t unexpected that she’d marry a local. But I WAS surprised to learn that with this wedding, all three of their daughters would be married. Somehow, I had lost track of one daughter’s nuptials. I’m pretty good with such details and I was mad with myself for not knowing this. After we hung up, however, I felt a bit less guilting because I realized that’s just the sort of detail they’d have mentioned in their Christmas letter – but they stopped doing one a few years ago. 

Admittedly, I’ve never written a Christmas letter, so I don’t know how difficult – or time consuming it is. I imagine it’s challenging to look back over the year and assess what might be the “highlights” you think others might be interested in. And I think maybe folks who are active on social media (Facebook or whatever) think that friends who are interested in keeping up with them will do so on social media. But such posts seem mostly about quick pictures, quips, and comments. An annual letter is very different. Random social media posts don’t provide a narrative thread. The way you weave different events together in a letter helps friends understand the impact they had on you. The letter helps me feel connected to how your life is unfolding, even if we’re far apart and don’t chat much during the year. 

Most of my friends who sent Christmas letters while their kids were growing up have stopped sending them. It’s almost as though when their kids moved out, they thought their friends outgrew hearing about them or their family. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, one Christmas letter I especially look forward to is from a couple I became acquainted with through an association I used to belong to. This couple got married later in life and they were very active in a civic group that sponsors community projects throughout the world. Their letters were always interesting and inspirational – filled with news about their travels and their volunteer activities. The husband died last year and I’m sure that knocked the wind out of his wife’s sails a bit, but I’ll bet she has carried on the volunteer work. I’m sure hoping she has it in her to continue the Christmas letter too. 

A friend who normally sends out a Christmas letter mentioned the other day that she wasn’t sure if she’s going to write one this year. When I asked her why should wouldn’t, she basically said she’s just feeling too pooped to make the effort. Ok, I get that … (believe me, the 15th and 30th of each month come around pretty quickly). But I think her friends would enjoy hearing about her year and I’m hoping this column might help convince her to make the effort. 

If I haven’t yet convinced you to write a Christmas letter for your friends’ sake, I say do it for yourself. Writing one is the opportunity to take stock of the past year. It’s similar to what you might do when thinking about New Year’s resolutions – but it’s certainly not as onerous. And who knows – it may help you think about what you’d like out of 2024. Bonus! (And don’t use the holiday rush as an excuse for not doing one. No one will mind receiving it a week or two after the holidays – if anything, they’ll have more time to enjoy it.) 

So, there you have my pitch. Your friends will understand if they don’t get a Christmas letter from you. They are your friends, after all. But think of all the interesting conversations a Christmas letter would prompt. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona