Curiosity, the Passive Cousin of Passion

I hear a lot of talk about passion. Characters, of course, are supposed to be passionate. Apparently, passion is what makes a character compelling and memorable. Who can forget Scarlett O’Hara, with her overweening and narcissistic passion? Like her or hate her, people find it hard to look away. Her passions make her the center of attention for everyone, including herself. Well, everyone except for me. Her passion exhausts me.

We living characters are exhorted to be passionate also, to embrace life and follow our passions, which sounds like good advice for those with high levels of energy. I am too phlegmatic to be truly passionate, though I have my moments, particularly when unfairness comes into play. I despise unfairness. Yeah, I know — life is unfair, but why should it be? Is that a natural law of the universe? Thou shalt be unfair? But I digress. As you can tell by the title of this post, the topic is not unfairness or even passion, but curiosity.

Curiosity is every bit as important a motivator as passion when it comes to life and reading. I am not one for romance novels. The passion is not to my taste, and there isn’t much curiosity involved. You know the characters will get together if the story is a category romance. And you know they won’t get together if the story is not a category romance. Did Lara and Dr. Zhivago get together? Did Cathy and Heathcliff? Did Scarlett and Rhett? (As an aside, you and I would never use such spellings of names. Double tees for both major characters? How coincidental — and cutesy — can you get?)

I’ve always been motivated by curiosity, the passive cousin of passion. When it comes to reading, I want to know who did it, how they did it, why they did it. Curiosity has often kept me reading far into the night.

Desert pathsIt’s the same with life. During the long years of grief for my life mate/soul mate, it was curiosity that kept me going. (I describe him as my soul mate for lack of a better term. Despite the passion such a term might seem to invoke, we were not passionate people, not romantic, not even especially happy, but we were connected — for good and bad — on what seemed to be a cosmic level. Of course, for all I know, it could have been a folie à deux.)

I once wrote: I called for you when I was out walking in the desert today, but you didn’t answer. Well, of course you didn’t answer — you’re dead.

I kept walking, following the winding road wherever it took me. No view on the road was different from another. The road didn’t lead to any particular place. The point was just to go. To see. And so it is with my life right now. I have no real reason to do anything. There is no meaning in my life, no reason to live except for curiosity.

Since his death, I’ve often wondered what will happen to me. Where would life take me? Who would I turn out to be now that I am . . . just me? That same curiosity will continue to keep me going into whatever future there may be.

When I researched long-term walking, I came across mention of a woman who called herself the Peace Pilgrim. In her forties, the Peace Pilgrim responded to a spiritual awakening by getting rid of everything she owned, and setting out on foot to promote peace. She traveled for tens of thousands of miles with only the clothes on her back and a pen, toothbrush, comb, and map in her pockets.

I envy the belief, focus, and agenda that allowed her to travel so lightly. I’m not sure I am capable of the sort of belief it takes to travel with nothing but the clothes on my back. Don’t have an agenda, either, but as a friend told me, “I don’t think you need belief or agenda…seems to me you just need curiosity!”

Yep. Curiosity. Not passion, just curiosity. The need to see what is around the next bend. If I’m lucky and willing to take risks, the power of curiosity could lead me into a lot of adventure!

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Conundrum of Grief

Tolstoy wrote, “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible.” This is especially true of those of us who have lost our soul mates. What we once were (or thought we were) has died along with our loved ones. Now we’re wandering the desert of aloneness and wondering why we are still here. Since we don’t know, life seems impossible.

Recently, there was a news article about an elderly couple who died within hours of each other. This is the sort of romantic story that we all believe in — that when one of a pair of soul mates dies, the other will die also. Unfortunately, that does not happen very often, which is why it is noteworthy when it occurs. Life is at once very fragile and very tenacious. Having watched my life mate/soul mate’s struggles, I know how difficult it is to die. People can suffer for years, fading slowly and painfully, hoping for death to release them from their agony, but still endure.

New grief feels as if it will kill you, but it seldom does. Such grief is so very strong that it takes your very breath away. It makes you feel as if you are having a heart attack and some sort of terrible gastrointestinal disease at the same time. It can cause Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, make wounds difficult to heal, retard recovery from illness. The death rate for those whose life mate’s died increases by 25% for all causes of death — disease, accident, trauma. Despite this, almost all of us, to our shock, find that we have survived the trauma of such a heinous loss.

Here is the conundrum of grief: if they got the better end of the deal, if they truly are in a better place, then why are we still here? And if life is worth living, how can we not care that it is being denied our loved ones?

I always thought I’d die when he did, and I wonder if that’s where some of my deep sorrow comes from — an unconscious feeling of not having loved enough, been connected enough to die at the same time as he did. But the truth is, I wanted to live, though I don’t know why.

About a year before he died, I hugged him and somehow so aggravated his pain that he pushed me away. A voice deep inside me, beneath conscious thought, proclaimed, “He might be dying, but I have to live.” I have no idea what that voice was. I’d only heard it once before, and that was when I met him. Thirty-six years ago, I walked into a health food store to buy whole-wheat pastry flour, and after talking to the owner for two minutes, that voice wailed, “But I don’t even like men with blond hair and brown eyes.” It wasn’t love at first sight, our meeting, more of a primal recognition. And that same part of me recognized that our shared life was over. After that day, our lives started to diverge — he to death, me to continued life.

I don’t know why I was so determined to live then, and don’t know why, almost twenty-two months after his death, I am still determined to live. Curiosity, perhaps. Curiosity to see what I can make of my life alone, to see what I am, to see who I become. Curiosity to see how I will make life seem possible once more.

Does Curiosity Automatically Create Conflict?

In an online writing discussion the other day, someone asked if curiosity automatically presented conflict. I had to think about that. If the curiosity isn’t at odds with the character in any way, if nothing is stopping the character from following their curiosity, there is no conflict. Curiosity, in that case, is about doing what comes naturally, going with the flow. And going with the flow is not conflict. Conflict is going against the flow.

Curiosity can lead to conflict, of course, since curiosity can get our characters into trouble, and trouble does present as conflict. Or perhaps the character is tempted to follow his curiosity but he needs to resist since his curiosity always gets him into trouble, and that temptation/resistance is conflict. In fact, curiosity is a great reason for a character to get into trouble, which moves the story along (especially if you’ve shown that your character is apt to follow his/her curiosity no matter what.)

As a plot driver or as a motivation for your character’s actions, curiosity may not have the emotional power of love, hatred, vengeance, anger, fear, but it has a power all its own. This drive to know new things, to find out about life’s mysteries, both major and minor, is one we can all understand. If we find a locked box, don’t we all want to know what is inside? If the box belongs to our spouse, do we have a right to open it? Do we look for the key? Do we open it? In real life, we might resist the urge out of respect or loyalty, but if we read a book where the character finds the box, we sure keep reading to find out how the character satisfies his/her curiosity . . .  and ours. For that is the crux of a story — as readers, it is our curiosity to find out what is going on that keeps us turning pages. If we didn’t care, if we had no curiosity about what is happening in the story world, we’d toss the book aside and find other things that arouse our curiosity, such as what’s on television, or who’s online.

So, even though curiosity doesn’t automatically create conflict, it might lead to conflict, and for sure will keep us reading.

Oddly, curiosity can also bring peace, which is the direct opposite of conflict. If a character has suffered greivous trauma, if the character as no other reason for living, their natural curiosity might give them a reason. Sometimes all one has to hold on to is curiosity as to what the future holds. And that realization brings peace of a sort. At least, it does bring peace until you start throwing more trauma at your character, because peaceful characters are not necessarily compelling characters.