Years with a prosthetic leg have provided me with some interesting encounters with curiosity.
During the end of high school I was a lifeguard and instructor at the local swimming pool. The first day of class was always an experience. From that vantage point, curiosity seemed to win out over the indoctrinated social politeness until about the age of 5 or 6. Frequently, the first class with five-year-olds would involve a brief circle of question and answer that went something like this:
Kid: “What happened to your leg?”
Me: “I was very sick when I was a little girl and the doctors had to take it off. They gave me a robot leg instead.”
Kid: “Oh, okay.”
And that was it. No further explanation required, and afterward the kids never seemed to take much notice. Sometimes there would be no words, and then one or two kids would slide across the circle to touch it, looking to me for permission that I always gave. I vividly remember this one class when the kids sat down in a circle and the little boy to my left slid right up next to me so that his right leg was touching my left leg, looked me in the eyes, and rested his hand on my leg without saying a word. He stayed there until I got the class into the pool.
I wrote about the curiosity of children in the post ‘One Leg, Two Eyes’, and how the response of others can shape that curiosity. One of the consequences of having a visible history of trauma is you see, on a social level, what we do to shape, and restrict, curiosity.
Curiosity has a cultural element. In places I’ve worked in Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia, curiosity seems to be something that is embraced, or at least not discouraged. I go for massages from local women because it gives me an opportunity to talk to them, and put money back into the local economy in exchange for a service (as opposed to stuff, see the post First World Problems). Without exception, all of these women have asked me what happened to my leg. The last time I was in Indonesia the masseuse put her hands on my leg while saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She ran her hands the length of my leg, and it was clear she had never seen anything like it before. Her curiosity was palpable, and I sensed there were many questions she wanted to ask. It seemed that only her English held her back.
Compare this to a recent encounter I had with a woman from work, here in Australia. We’ve known each other for months, and I’ve been to her house a number of times. She came to drop something off at my house, and I answered the door in shorts and a T-shirt. We had a conversation standing on the front porch, while she clearly made an effort not to even glance at my prosthetic leg. There’s no way she didn’t notice. She drove away without saying a word, and we’ve never discussed it since.
Humans are naturally curious beasts. Friendship and intimacy develop from mutual exploration into the human experience of others. I believe some of our ability to connect with one another has been lost in Western culture, and that this is, in part, because of the way in which curiosity gets smothered in favour of politeness, or social correctness, or our fear of asking too much.