Enter with Curiosity: Tending Connection through a Practice of Questions

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“What is it about leaving the house these days?” I remarked to a friend.

“Difficult.” She nodded as she shared with me her resistance to going outside for the simplest engagements, like buying bread or meeting a friend. That morning, we exchanged reflections on our experiences of physical isolation during the pandemic. From our homes (and grateful for them), we’ve experienced and witnessed losses resulting from pandemic, planetary change, and political instability; we’ve also experienced the recovery of stories once submerged by ideas of supremacy and power dynamics that have long fostered disconnection from ourselves and each other. Loss and possibility are in flux daily.

Throughout pandemic lockdowns, my home became my comfort zone. Now, as I return to routines and reconfigure ways of life, entering the world outside my door frequently overwhelms me. 

It’s increasingly apparent that our communities are unwell. Our breathing, planetary home is suffocating. If our comfort zones dwindled to the space of our homes, perhaps we are having a healthy living response to an unhealthy living environment. Fear is a first response to perceived danger and since the start of the pandemic, there is much that appears, and often is, dangerous, if not uncertain.

How do we open the front door at this time? It’s tempting to wall off, divide, and defend. How do we meet uncertain forces to participate in the growth of a world that is more hospitable for ourselves, our children, and all life?

Perhaps the answer lies in a question. Questions extend our comfort zones by opening the door to a place of relationship and discovery, chaos and generativity; a place where life can evolve and thrive. Wisdom traditions and scientific inquiries both reveal that humility and curiosity are key to human connection. To question is to admit both. 

Ten years ago, I began shepherding a publication founded to deepen a practice of questions: Today we celebrate it as “Questions for a Resilient Future.” In this special section of Minding Nature, which reflects on the first ten years of Questions for a Resilient Future, you will find conversations with the co-founders of the series, Brooke Parry Hecht and Ceara Donnelley; and with Christine Luckasavitch, an Editorial Fellow, and artist Alyssa Bardy, who reflect on the most recent question: “What stories does the land hold?” In addition, you will read a selection of responses to various questions the Center for Humans and Nature has asked in Questions for a Resilient Future over the years. These responses exemplify core aspects of engaging in a practice of questions, which can be a practice of understanding and ultimately offers a way to love. For, at its best, a good question is an act of love.

The Questions for a Resilient Future was conceived as a home for questions with a long life, questions that cannot be simply resolved, or resolved once and for all, and, importantly, questions that open onto further questions. These questions have roots in what philosopher Strachan Donnelley, founder of the Center for Humans and Nature, thought of as the root question: How ought we to live with each other and the whole community of life?

During the last ten years, Donnelley’s guiding question has inspired us to ask questions as varied as: “What does Earth ask of us?”, “Mind and morality: Where do they meet?”, “What are our responsibilities to water?”, “How do we create communities to which all of us can belong?”, and “What kind of ancestor do you want to be?” (This question is available as a book from the University of Chicago Press, 2021.) Ideas and precise wording for the questions has grown into a collaborative of many voices, traditions, disciplines, and perspectives. In gathering each community of inquiry, the series reaches beyond the boundaries of knowledge as defined by academic expertise to experience as the wider foundation of our understanding that welcomes many ways of knowing.

The practice of asking questions requires that we listen to a diversity of worldviews in response to the questions we ask. Through public events, partnerships, and reader response invitations, we are always seeking to expand the circle of conversation around the Questions for a Resilient Future. In 2020, I developed the Editorial Fellows program to welcome collaboration with colleagues who value the questions forum and share the Center’s commitment to understanding our responsibilities to each other and the community of life. In their work, Editorial Fellows are dedicated to developing relationship through storytelling; they attend to language and the dynamics of narrative. As writers and editors, our Editorial Fellows are reshaping the world through words. Editorial Fellow Christine Luckasavitch’s question, “What stories does the land hold?”—featured in this issue—reveals how our relationship to the land can instruct us in our relationships to each other. The authors offering response are all Indigenous people and the question gathers experiences and understandings that have long been excluded from academic approaches to environmental ethics. 

Luckasavitch writes, “when we listen, we enter into a relationship.” Questions can foster relationship; how we ask them and how we respond directs the course of our connectedness with each other and the larger living world. When we ask with humility and listen for difference—opening to what we do not know—we nurture the deepening of understanding. In her reflections included in this issue, Questions for a Resilient Future co-founder and Center for Humans and Nature board member Ceara Donnelley shares, “If I have learned anything, it is that understanding spools out over time, sometimes in great bursts, sometimes slowly and steadily, but only if you keep asking the questions, resisting rigidity and premature presumptions of answers.”

How we communicate matters for what we communicate. Language is a powerful tool. Questions redirect narrative possibilities and allow us to approach the unexpected. Our series, “How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic?” pointed to the difficulty of a divided worldview of humans and nature. In her response, “Ode to New York,” geographer Carolyn Finney wrote, “We, the human animal, are one of the faces of nature and the city is our home place…our cities are not the stepchild of our dreams, but are revelations of our fragility, our resilience and our incorrigibility.”

We later posed the question, “What happens when we see ourselves as separate from or as a part of nature?” which unfolded partly from this exchange. In response to this question, philosopher Freya Mathews peels back the Western frame of separation offering that “nature would thus consist…not in a class of entities ‘out there,’ but in a pattern of unfolding, which we can suppress or allow in either ourselves or other-than-human beings.” Questions for a Resilient Future is both a place to share and develop perspective. Through the cross-pollination of ideas, the questions guide our inquiry. 

If we are to participate in the health of the living world, if we are to contribute to the healing of community, we would do well to dedicate ourselves to understanding what Center President Brooke Parry Hecht, echoing Strachan Donnelley, describes as “the many possible forms that our responsibilities can take.” To grow our understanding through questions, we reach into the place of difference; we seek to understand what we do not know.

When we enter the world with curiosity, our imaginations flow forth. Physicist Arthur Zajonc, writing in response to “Mind and morality: Where do they meet?”, points out that “Imagination reaches beyond what we already know to the new.” If curiosity opens the door, if questions unlock it, then I believe that imagination allows us to dance with whatever we meet.

As we continue to live in a time of increased awareness of uncertainty and apparent disconnection, the practice of questions offers one way toward each other and the large community of life, a method for engaging the great realm of what we do not know with gentleness and humility; welcoming the unknown as our guest. I hope the perspectives offered in this special section encourage you to open a door today.

  • Katherine Kassouf Cummings

    Katherine serves as Managing Editor at the Center for Humans and Nature and for Humans and Nature Press, Digital, where she leads the Questions for a Resilient Future and developed the Editorial Fellows program. She is co-editor of What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

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