Oddly enough, it was an overwhelming amount of hate that set me off on a cross-country road trip across America. I wasn’t taking a sabbatical to go into nature or working remotely in mountain-top forests. Instead, I spent 12 months living out of my retrofitted Prius, showering at Planet Fitness and meeting people who seemed different to me. Venturing out of the liberal stronghold of San Francisco, my journey on the road took me to places like a Trump rally in Minnesota and a convent with Catholic nuns and millennials.
I’m a progressive, queer, Asian-American guy who often dresses flamboyantly – my favourite outfit is a colourful floral jumpsuit. So you can imagine that when some of my friends heard about my plans, they said they were concerned for my safety. They asked me if I was going to bring a knife or pepper spray for protection. I’d be meeting people they deemed as the “enemy”, after all.
Honestly, I shared some of their fears. I held stereotypical views about people on “the other side”. Aren’t Trump voters people who are uneducated and hate-fuelled, and hostile towards people like me? Would Catholic nuns think I was unholy because I’m gay?
On the other hand, I knew deeply what it meant to be reduced to assumptions based on who I love or what I look like. My Asianness meant I had a Tiger mom, excelled at maths and was soft-spoken. People have hollered “ching chong” to me and asked where I really came from. When people held these caricatures of me, I felt deeply unseen and unvalued. They knew very little of the story of who I really am.
This othering, fuelled by what I call an “era of incuriosity” where we refuse to turn towards one another to foster understanding and relationships, is driving one of the most urgent issues of our time: division and disconnection. This is something I’ve been exploring and writing about as the Bridging Differences Fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. And, unfortunately, this issue is global in its reach. The rupture between families and communities due to politics or social identities has found its way to the UK, fuelled by the aftermath of Brexit – and research shows that animosity between groups is getting worse.
For us in America, our Brexit-rupture moment was the 2016 presidential elections. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that one in six people ended a relationship of some kind because of irreconcilable differences caused by the elections. If it’s not politics fracturing us then it’s vaccines, a geopolitical crisis abroad, age divides or gender rights.
Through my research, I learned that there’s a potent tool that can help us to bridge these differences and forge more meaningful connections with one another. It’s something that we’re thankfully all born with, but might not practise in an intentional way: curiosity.
Defined as the search for understanding, curiosity is often viewed as just an intellectual pursuit, a way for us to extract information. It fuels our midnight Wikipedia rabbit holes about Taylor Swift or puts us on a fact-finding mission to identify every tree in our neighbourhood.
But curiosity is also heart-centred, one that stirs our soul, used to explore our inner world such as how we’ve been hurt or what truly matters to us in life. Therapists encourage clients to reflect on their emotions and relationships. We use curiosity to better understand our loved ones and even strangers at the grocery checkout line. Questions like “What’s the story of your name?” or “Could you tell me about your grandparents?” unlock the kinds of stories filled with rich insights that help us to really see and value the person we’re getting in conversation with.
What I found is that when you turn toward people with curiosity – even those with very different political views or religious beliefs to yours – you are less likely to put them on the defensive. By getting to know who they are as an individual, independent of their group identities or affiliations, you begin to humanise them in ways that counter the stereotypes you once held.
That’s exactly what happened to me at the Trump rally. A man voting for Trump, who was an optometrist and did mission trips, told me LGBTQ+ people deserve equality, too – even though I cringed at his use of “the gays” to describe our community. I met another man who said his girlfriend was a Democrat, and although he loved her, he felt ostracised by her friends.
“I’ll be hanging out with them, and I just know they think that I’m stupid,” he said. Although he didn’t say it directly, I could tell he felt hurt by their judgment. I could see his humanity shining through. This man hurt and felt othered, just like I did.
Throughout the day and evening, I met dozens of Trump voters who nuanced my understanding of who “they” were. I realised that they aren’t just a single monolithic group. Some of them believed in climate change. Others were parents. Many valued the same things I did: family, service and belonging. By conversing, they became less scary to me. Each time, it became a less anxiety-inducing endeavour.
The same was true when I travelled to a convent where a group of Catholic sisters was living with five millennials as part of a six-month residency called Nuns and Nones. The term “nones” was coined to describe a growing number of people who are seeking spiritual meaning in their lives, but aren’t affiliated with a religion in the traditional sense. One of those nones, Sarah, says there is something powerful about evading neat categories and staying on the edge, the borderlands, between traditions.
The average age of a Catholic sister in the United States is close to 80, and fewer than 1% are under 40. Side by side, the nones and the sisters looked worlds apart. Buzz cuts, velvet shirts and tattoos on one side; greying hair, purple floral tops and aged hands on the other.
One of the pivotal moments at the Nuns and Nones residency between them was a conversational salon on the vow of chastity. The salons involved sitting in a circle together for hours and sharing thoughts, personal experiences, and questions.
Sarah expressed her initial resistance to the word chastity. She said the term carried a negative connotation and history – a tool to exert power over women, controlling their bodies and suppressing their sexuality. The sisters nodded their heads, indicating they understood where she was coming from. As the sisters elaborated on the vow from their perspective, Sarah took in their stories, learning about their relationship to femininity and the divine.
Sarah’s preconceived ideas about chastity began to loosen – just as my assumptions had at the Trump rally – and she started to see the vow of chastity in a more expansive way. Making a lifelong vow meant that the sisters’ love (and time and energy) could stretch beyond a single romantic partner or their immediate family and go towards being in service of the underserved or marginalised – or even a group of millennials who’d arrived on their doorsteps in a Subaru.
I didn’t just utilise curiosity on the road across obvious divides like politics and religion. There were also many dinners with people much younger or older than me – equally illuminating as we become much more generationally segregated with young people at school, adults at work, and elders in nursing homes or retirement communities.
By the end of my road trip across the country, I had clocked thousands of miles in my Prius and the big takeaway from my experiences was that at the heart of the division and disconnection so rampant all around the world is a lack of curiosity. When we turn away from one another, we operate from assumptions and biases. We’re more likely to dehumanise a group, which makes it easier for us to fear or hate those people.
If we instead choose to turn toward each other with curiosity, it becomes a potent force for understanding and connection. And fortunately for everyone, you don’t have to hop into a decades-old Prius to practise this skill with others. You can deepen your practice with curiosity in a conversation with your neighbour who has opposing political views from you, your colleague who you’re in conflict with at work, or your child who is going through a struggle you’ve never experienced before. You can challenge your assumptions, ask them questions like “tell me more,” and be willing to be transformed by what you learn.
Society will continue to grapple with crisis after crisis and while we can’t control these things, we can harness the superpower of deep curiosity to better navigate them. Not only does it have the power to transform our lives – it really can change the world. The next time the rug is pulled from under you, don’t hide. Instead, I ask you to seek.
Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World by Scott Shigeoka is published by Bluebird at £16.99. Buy it at guardianbookshop.com for £14.95