September 11, 2015

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

Asking questions that unlock wisdom

I’m reading a book that speaks to me as a journalist, Brian Grazer’s 2015 release A Curious Mind: The Secret To A Bigger Life. In it, the 64-year-old Emmy-winning movie producer recounts his practice of conducting “curiosity conversations” twice a month for the past three decades to fill up his knowledge reserve and walk in someone else’s head.

The book is part memoir, part how-to, urging readers to unleash the power of curiosity in daily life—in the break room, on the bleachers—by asking, in essence, “What is it like to be you?” It’s an ode to the power of learning, to the joy of being surprised and making connections.

“We are all trapped in our own way of thinking,” writes Grazer, “trapped in our own way of relating to people.”

The reporter’s way as a lifestyle strikes me as an inherently Christian proposal. It suggests that everyone we encounter—from stranger to spouse—possesses wisdom that could be acquired if only we care enough to ask. It hints at the bedrock of Catholic social teaching, human dignity, each of us created in the image and likeness of God. It submits that an understanding of the world comes not from pedigree but from shoe-leather reporting—listening, observing, leaning in and following up.

Pope Francis conducted a curiosity conversation last month, as reported in a quiet, six-sentence Associated Press story. During an audience in St. Peter’s Square, the pope made his driver stop the popemobile so he could talk to “a tiny granny with shining eyes.”

There was something in her eyes that captivated him, whispering of secret knowledge: an old body, a childlike light.

He had to ask her: “Tell me your recipe” for joy?

Her response surprised him. “I eat ravioli,” she said. “I make them.”

It was such a concrete answer to an abstract question, its simplicity blanketing layers of meaning: a woman who has learned to sustain herself as she cares for others, gathering them around her table, warming bellies and doling out love in little pockets of pasta.

It makes me wonder what wisdom figures are right under my nose, masquerading as bank tellers and mail carriers, as the familiar or the strange, as the young or the old.

This month, I went to a 50th anniversary party in a packed church gym, where the bride’s $90 satin gown was fluffed up on a mannequin, beckoning from the past. More than 500 people were there, but one niece and her fiancé couldn’t be there due to their pre-Cana formation. Ironic, I thought, to attend formal marriage prep and, as a result, miss out on the chance to learn from these experts.

And so I started asking. I started assuming the people in my path are generous and wise, and, borrowing from Pope Francis, I started asking for their recipes for joy. The cashier at a McDonald’s drive-thru, the cart pusher at my local grocery store, whomever I could manage.

I found myself in the speckled shade of an oak on a Thursday afternoon, handing over a dollar for a bag of jingle bells and ribbon, shopping for secondhand wisdom at a garage sale on the edge of town.

The woman who lives there told me she spends more than a month adorning her house with Christmas lights and inflatables. Then she and her husband dress as Santa and Mrs. Claus, giving toys to the children who visit and responding to their letters on official North Pole stationery with personalized, handwritten details. Her faith is at the heart of the operation, she said, smiling broadly in the sun. “What you give comes back to you tenfold.”

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of

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