Curiosity is the dawn of potential–a desire to learn something new, grow in awareness, and become more than we could be on our own. Curiosity, the birthplace of our becoming, is embodied in WONDER, my 2023 Word of the Year.

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Surely my dad was blessed by a fairy godmother, endowed with the gift of curiosity, and he passed that down to me. Many Saturday mornings in my childhood, my dad would take my brother and me to local historical attractions and museums, and tell us stories about the “old days.” In retirement, my dad is passionate about learning history, particularly about his hometown of Valparaiso, compiling several books with the research he has done. His hobby and passion started with curiosity.

There are many similarities between my dad and me, even though how we have arrived at our curiosity and love of learning is different. I enjoyed the traditional school setting, spent many hours “playing school,” and was naturally drawn to becoming a teacher. He had an aversion to school and could not wait to get out. But, we both share a passion for gathering information, learning, and, then, sharing what we learn with others. It is an attitude of wonder and the love of storytelling that motivates us.

Wonder, the mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity, and embracing mystery, arises out of experiences of awe.

Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

WONDER opens our eyes to synchronicity.

WONDER leaves room for the unexpected, for learning something new.

Curiosity led to an unexpected experience of “teachable moments” on a recent trip to Breckenridge, Colorado. My husband and a few family members took to the ski slopes, while my brother-in-law, Mark, and I did some sightseeing and enjoyed the mountain vistas. 

A day for wandering, we visited the Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships and enjoyed a scenic gondola ride to the base of Peak 8. We sauntered by dozens of buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and stumbled upon a local church where a couple invited us in, sharing the building history and pointing out the original fixtures that shined the first electric lights in Breckenridge. We ambled into souvenir shops with coffee mugs, hats, and shirts–anything that a mountain logo could be printed on–and we walked past the Barney Ford House Museum. I had done plenty of research before this trip (of course), but I hadn’t planned to visit this museum. 

But now I wondered who Barney was and why he had a museum in his honor. With one more day to wander, I sought more information. With an internet search for the Barney Ford House Museum, I learned Barney is a pretty big deal in Breckenridge, that a PBS documentary had been recently filmed about him, and that the following day, February 1, was the first day of Black History Month AND Barney Ford Day in Colorado. Astonished by the synchronicity of learning about Ford just a day before this important date, I spent an hour watching the documentary. I was stunned by what I learned–the story of an enslaved man who, against all odds, becomes a successful entrepreneur. I teach an Entrepreneurship class, so I was already making plans to share Barney’s story with my students.

Born into slavery, Barney Ford escaped at 26. He encountered many obstacles in his pursuit of freedom and financial success–racism, fires, claim jumping, theft, unethical business practices, dangerous voyages, sabotage, and more. I am in awe of Barney Ford–his resilience in face of such adversity, the courage to escape slavery, to help others through his efforts with the underground railroad, to seek opportunities and solve problems with new ideas, starting businesses, and experiencing the rise and fall of those businesses.

Undeterred, he became one of the richest and most well-respected men in the state as a miner, barber, restauranteur, and hotel owner—a true entrepreneur—all while fighting endlessly for Black rights. 

Even though he never held an elected position (although his obituary claimed so); he was an influential civic leader who pushed for Colorado statehood with suffrage for all making Colorado the first state to enter the Union with voting rights for black men as well as white (of course, women would have a continued fight ahead of them.) Source: Colorado Experience: Mr. Barney Ford, 2021 Rocky Mountain PBS Documentary 

“He was a man of the highest moral sense, possessed of great tact in the association with all men, modest in manner, subdued in deportment, intelligent beyond most men of his station in life, a model of active industry, a gentleman by instinct, chaste in thought and therefore always chaste in speech, and respected by all who knew him…”–the Society of Colorado Pioneers (those who arrived in Colorado before 1861)

WONDER is the doorway to gratitude. 

I am grateful for the enthusiastic museum docent who greeted me at the door. She was as excited as I was about how much I had learned in the last day about Barney Ford. As a former American History teacher, she and I connected through our shared profession as educators. We discussed the amazing contributions of Barney Ford, how resilient he was, how favorable he was viewed by those who knew him, and why we hadn’t heard of him. We wondered aloud about what ISN’T taught in American history classes, which led to a passionate discussion on the dangerous trend to filter and/or adapt the history of our country and to ban books in schools.

WONDER is the threshold to astonishment. 

What most commonly led people around the world to feel awe? …it was other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming.

–Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

Too many throughout history have faced racism, brutal treatment, and lack of opportunities and education. How is it, I wonder, that some can experience so much adversity, they can have all the cards stacked against them, and yet they overcome? Certainly, Ford was inspired to learn from his mother who managed to secure an Oxford Dictionary from the main house to help him learn to read and write. A parent can ignite a desire for learning and model the wonder and joy of learning something new. I am in awe, as Dacher Keltner writes, of the courage, work ethic, strength, and resilience of Barney Ford.  

WONDER is contagious; it can be passed on. 

Sometimes my students complain about an assignment or activity (hard to imagine, I know). Perhaps they aren’t interested or think it doesn’t apply to them, but I do not accept that. I tell them my mantra has always been–there is no such thing as wasted learning. Anything we learn has the possibility of enriching our lives.

Wisdom begins in WONDER.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. – Mahatma Gandhi

Keep death daily before your eyes. –St. Benedict

Mahatma Gandhi and St. Benedict think alike. Life IS a school for learning. To live with curiosity and wonder is one of life’s greatest joys. Knowing that our days are numbered should be the proverbial fire under our behinds to keep learning, living, and seeking awe.  

We must not stunt the curiosity of others by limiting or withholding learning opportunities. We must be the fairy godmother, the good parent, and the positive role models to encourage curiosity, particularly for our young people. What we learn from the past can be the antidote to an uncertain future. We can learn from history, from our mistakes, and from extraordinary people like Barney Ford. 

As our default self vanishes, (we become aware that ) we are part of networks of more interdependent, collaborating individuals. We sense that we are part of a chapter in the history of a family, a community, a culture.

–Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

We are part of something much bigger than just ourselves–we are members of a family, a community, and our country. Ford, an activist for those who did not have freedom, felt a responsibility to the whole, for contributing to making a difference.

What HAVE we learned in the past 200 years? Is there anything we could have learned from Barney Ford’s example? Could we have prevented this great American division if we had learned from those who have gone before us? Could we have learned from role models who show “courage, kindness, strength or overcoming?”

By not teaching the truth about our history, we obstruct our children from learning what could help mend divisions and bring peace. We may be missing out on reaching our highest potential, of becoming all that we could be as individuals and as a country. We must question, listen, and learn. There is so much we don’t know that will be lost to us forever if we don’t remain curious.

There is no such thing as wasted learning.

“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.”

— Lincoln Steffens

© Jodi Blazek Gehr, Being Benedictine Blogger