Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Parasite of Curiosity

A vice that was oft-discussed in olden times seems to have become eradicated least in the popular mind.  I have heard and read very little in contemporary Christianity that discusses the vice of curiosity.  Yes, it is a vice when taken to an extreme (which it easily tends to): it is an excessive love of novelty that includes a disdain for what is older, more common, more traditional.  (Another meaning would be the curiosity of a busybody who is eager for gossip, but that form of curiosity seems more commonly condemned than this one.)  It may manifest as simply an overwhelming preference for living spiritual writers than sainted ones or for modern ideas over ancient ones; it may also manifest in an obsessive drive to be always learning more by learning broadly.  This latter form, I fear, is the least recognized and least condemned, and it is incredibly easy to fall into, especially with our current "Information Age."  In addition to the disdain for the old, this form of curiosity can also lead to dissipation: one can exhaust all one's energies merely in searching out new information.  Our inter-linked websites nowadays are fertile ground for growing this vice: when researching one subject, a link spurs an interest in another subject, which one then researches, which leads to more links, eventually creating a whirlpool that drains all of one's time and energy.  (I am thinking, as prime examples, of sites such as Wikipedia and TV Tropes.)  In general, this form of curiosity is about desiring to ever know more and to be researching new things but doing so to the point where deeper study of things one knew before is ignored; often, this can lead to a mere search for a breadth of knowledge without truly digging into the depths of a topic.  At its most vicious, of course, it leads one to prefer the quest for novelty and new knowledge to the deepening of one's relationship with the Lord.

Think of a rich man who unknowingly harbors a parasite in his gut.  He has the resources to order many, many, rich, extravagant varieties of food, and this, as luck would have it, is precisely what his parasite desires.  When a smorgasbord is laid before him, he tries small amounts of all the foods rather than eating a large, hearty meal of only a few.  His parasite urges him on to this, as it can absorb nutrients from any food, as long as it is not overloaded with an abundance of one type.  The parasite thus urges the man to try as many varieties as he can, and his resources allow him to do so; yet he never feels satisfied, for the parasite absorbs the nutrients of all the foods.  The rich man, then, is left exploring a greater and greater multitude of foods, and yet he is never satisfied.  This is a representation of the vice of curiosity, for one who is always seeking out more new knowledge is never satisfied, but always desires more.

Consider, though, if this rich man decides to settle down for a meal consisting of a large portion of one food: say, for instance, a 30-ounce steak (he is rich, after all).  The parasite at first eagerly absorbs the nutrients of the steak, yet it is quickly overwhelmed.  It ceases to absorb the steak, and it slowly begins to wither and be crushed due to the great quantity of food it cannot absorb.  Since the food is not being stolen, it actually provides nutrients and satisfaction to the rich man, and he finally feels full for the first time in many moons.  This is the power a singular meal can have: it satisfies the rich man while withering the parasite.  This is a representation of how directing our attention to the Lord can do for those affected by the vice of curiosity: it can satisfy them where the vice could not, and it even works to kill the vice in them.

We must all be on guard against this vice, which can so easily infest us.  If we are not careful, we can give all our attention to chasing after the new while abandoning the depths of the Lord.  Learning new things is not, in itself, a vice, of course, but it can easily become this addictive vice if we are not prepared.  "Be attentive to yourself," as it is written through Moses (Dt 15:9).  As St. Basil the Great said in his famous homily on these words, "Only be attentive to yourself. that you may recognize the strength and illness of your soul.  For many through lack of attention get great and incurable illnesses, and they do not themselves know that they are ill."  Let these words not apply to us; let us be on guard, watching ourselves lest we fall into vice, particularly the easy vice of curiosity.  Let us all, myself included (as I am horribly infected with this parasite), work to keep ourselves free of curiosity by focusing on the Lord and always striving to grow closer to Him Whom we can never fully grasp.  The curious man never reaches the end of his search and is always hungry; the holy man never reaches the end of his quest and is always full, for the Lord satisfies us as He remains ever higher than us.  He is the "presence, perennially imminent upon, although lying ever beyond the human horizon" (Servant of God Luigi Giussani).  Let us always remember, as St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us, that "the true satisfaction of [the soul's] desire consists in always progressing in her search and ascent," not for more novel knowledge, but for the Lord, "Him Who is unattainable."
St. Gregory of Nyssa, pray for us!

Nota Bene: The quote from St. Basil can be found in his "Homily on the Words 'Be Attentive to Yourself,'" §4.  The quote from Servant of God Luigi Giussani is from his At the Origin of the Christian Claim, p. 5 in the translation by Viviane Hewitt, published by McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998.  The quotes from St. Gregory of Nyssa are from his Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XII (p. 225 in the translation by Casimir McCambley, published by Hellenic College Press, 1987).

No comments:

Post a Comment