Stumbling and Bumbling into Curiosity

Stumbling and Bumbling into Curiosity

In reviewing many recent mind maps to reassure myself that my decision to retire had been a wise one, and for the right reasons, I noticed how many times I had written about “a tumble and a crumble” when describing a period of disorientation and confusion. (Apparently a lot during the pandemic.) 

I got curious – what did tumble and crumble and bumble and stumble, even humble – all these “umble” words – have in common? Did they have a root source?

I checked The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology out of the library and began researching. The tumble (fall helplessly, sudden downfall) crumble (fall into small pieces, disintegrate) stumble (fall, blunder) bumble (proceed unsteadily, blunder) are all verbs, all describe falling in some way; all originated in Middle English, with Old English, Old High German, Old Norse roots before that. 

Humble is an adjective rooted in Anglo-French and can mean of low condition or status, insignificant but also not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive.  

The verbs pretty much all negative, but in the adjective the “low” condition is not necessarily negative; it could even be a positive trait.

What made this journey of discovery truly delightful was that it coincided with my friend Lynn sending me the link to the Talks at Google interview with Perry Zurn and Dani Bassett, authors of Curious Minds: The Power of Connection. (I could get very curious about that synchronicity!) A rich exploration of the value and power of curiosity, especially when free-form, curiosity-interest for its own self, its own reward, not necessarily tied to a goal, a result, or in pursuit of owning or commodifying learning into something “useful” or a product.

[As in remembering Christian, the husband of my sponsor when I was teaching in Vienna, a mineralogist at the University of Vienna, loving field trips, discovering new minerals, contributing to the general knowledge of our planet; how dismal when his field changed and the purpose of finding new minerals was to make better detergents.) 

Perry Zurn is a professor of philosophy at American University; Dani Bassett is a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. They are also identical twins, growing up collaborating together on all kinds of learning adventures, and have now identified three patterns of curiosity that are universal over cultures over thousands of years: the busy body, the hunter, the dancer. 

The busy-body – interested in many, many different things, following interests here, there, everywhere. The hunter – following one thread single-mindedly. The dancer – integrating discoveries from many places into one integrated whole. 

Throughout their research, Zurn and Bassett see the power of connection: that curiosity happens at the edges of things, when one phenomena/concept/person bumps up against another and something new is created. Our brains work entirely through the inter-connections of trillions of neurons, that brain activity creating “emergent” phenomena – ideas or perspectives or behaviors that weren’t there a minute ago, maybe never even ever before.

And curious people working together can create “emergent” ideas, paradigms, systems, that had never existed before.

I’m actually pretty humbled in learning how vast the research into curiosity is. And learning that I can be a busy-body, interested in many different ideas in books, films, conversations with people, all in one day. I can be a hunter, settling into Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futuresby Merlin Sheldrake for the week it took me to read it.  I can be a dancer, integrating ideas into the new teaching I’ll be doing at the Cape Cod Institute later this summer. 

Mostly I got inspired by feeling the energy of curiosity again. No matter what I learned or didn’t learn about “umble,” I learned that I still love learning, and am so very grateful that retirement has opened up so much more time for good learning, wherever it takes me.