Personal reflections

Chesterton, Children, and the Death of Curiosity

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My brain is constantly coming up with ideas and I can’t get it to stop. I was on the phone one day a few weeks back and I saw a gate. It reminded me of The Secret Garden, a book I read more than five times and loved as a kid.

Nine-year-old me would have been very curious about that gate, which was locked and set in a brick wall covered in vines. But I’m 21, and I knew what was beyond the gate, so I wasn’t at all concerned about the fact that it was locked. I knew I could walk through the house I was staying at and come out on the other side, and find how uninteresting the place beyond it was.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy the phenomenon of storytelling and what impresses children:

“We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales – because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.”

I agreed with Chesterton immediately when reading this, but it wasn’t until I looked at the gate, and realized I knew what was beyond it, that adults are less curious. I wasn’t just unimpressed by the idea of opening the gate and finding a dragon, I didn’t care to open the gate at all.

As Lewis wrote in The Magician’s Nephew: “adults are always coming up with uninteresting explanations.”

I saw a door like the Secret Garden, and the child in me wondered of the world beyond, but I realized Chesterton’s analogy was partial: the young child need only hear that a door was opened, the older child must hear of what lies beyond the door, but the adult need not open the door at all to be satisfied and unimpressed with what lies behind it.

Doors that were locked used to be worth unlocking simply because they were locked. I want to be that child again. That’s why I try to listen to the wise words of Randall Munroe:

“Take wrong turns. Talk to strangers. Open unmarked doors, and if you see a group of people in a field, go find out what they’re doing. Do things without always knowing how they’ll turn out. You’re curious and smart and bored, and all you see is the choice between working hard and slacking off. There are so many adventures that you miss because you’re waiting to think of a plan. To find them, look for tiny interesting choices. And remember that you are always making up the future as you go.”