Curiosity won't kill you — just ask my cats

Sunday, January 31, 2021 - 12:41pm

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Illustration by Katherine Lee

I have two particularly incessant roommates. They destroy my study spaces, knocking my notebook to the floor while I’m preoccupied on Zoom. They perform perilous parkour atop kitchen cabinets, bed frames and any other obstacle around the apartment they manage to summit. They scream for hours until I prepare their meals and, when it’s finally time, they devour them without thanks. It doesn’t seem that curiosity can kill my beloved cats, Socks and Salem, but their curiosity may just kill me.

All jokes aside, I wouldn’t trade my cats for the world. I’ve had them for about a year and a half. When they were adopted in July 2019, I couldn’t have guessed what was in store for our future. I couldn’t have known the solace that their curiosity would bring these past few months. No matter how monotonous the days would become, me waking each morning to a world unchanged and unexciting, Socks and Salem never saw it that way. They instead greet each day as a new adventure, always able to find some aspect of life still ripe for exploration.

Most interestingly, though, is that amid these perpetual escapades, Socks and Salem have also mastered the art of serenity. Whether atop my lap or tucked into some fleece-lined crevice, those two are experts at R&R. And so they spend their days cycling through phases of investigation and relaxation, defying the old adage which claims that curiosity will be their downfall. Instead, curiosity is what sustains them.

Take This As Your Warning

Watching my two favorite boys go about life as usual over these past few months made me wonder why we as a society ever decided that curiosity would kill the cat. When I looked it up, it turned out that the idiom has a curious history of its own. In fact, centuries before “curiosity killed the cat” was popularized as an Irish proverb in the late 1800s, its wisdom took on a different meaning.

The phrase’s first written account dates back to Ben Johnson’s 1598 play, “Every Man and His Humor,” in which “curiosity” is swapped for “care.” Johnson’s play was written as a satire. Each of the main characters suffered some form of obsession, which drove the entire story’s conflict. Care, otherwise conceived of as worry or obsession, was theorized to push a person — or cat — to insanity.

This message rang true with other cultural contributors of the era, including William Shakespeare. Just a year after performing in the troupe of Johnson’s play, Shakespeare injected the wisdom into his own works as a line in “Much Ado About Nothing.” “What, courage man!” he wrote. “What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care."

Both Johnson and Shakespeare described this overzealous “care” as a grave transgression which hurts not only yourself, but the people around you as well. But despite the rephrasing, my original grievance still holds. “Care killed the cat” just doesn’t align with the behavior I see in Socks and Salem. Cats are by nature aloof and nonchalant. It’s clear that the saying is not meant to be advice for them; instead, it reflects a piece of advice meant to be heard by us.

It’s difficult to distinguish the exact point where language breaks from culture. We weave our histories, our passions and our insecurities into the way we speak — both as individuals and communities. For this reason, each idiom can be used as a case study that cues into a deeper look of culture. Often repeated shards of wisdom provide insight into the evolving values of our society.

This begs the question: Why did colloquial culpability for the cat’s demise shift from care to curiosity over the years? Linguistic historians are unsure of exactly how the phrase evolved from a warning against obsession to one against exploration, but in both instances, the message is clear: Stay in your lane, and don’t take on others’ problems as your own. You could make the argument that curiosity is just a more specific form of worry. That is, to be curious is to worry about what you do not yet know.

Nevertheless, I feel I must push back against the notion that compassion and inquisition are inherently negative acts. In this moment where there’s little more to do than to bide your time, a rejection of care and curiosity would itself be lethal. Without my relationships or my ability to learn new things, I would have slipped into a catatonic state months ago. 

Just like with my cats, it seems these “fatal flaws” of empathy and inquiry are actually our lifeblood. And I’m definitely not the only one to notice, because the evolution of the phrase reflects a change of heart. Eventually, a refrain was tacked onto the idiom which fundamentally altered its meaning — “curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.”

Save The Cat

The Greek word paraprosdokian, literally translating to “beyond expectation,” is used to describe a phrase in which the final portion reveals a bit of information which reframes the phrase at large. Otherwise known as a garden path sentence, paraprosdokians are popular forms of humor and intrigue. The rejoinder regarding satisfaction turned “curiosity killed the cat” into one of the best known paraprosdokians of our age.

Now, instead of it being a warning against “care” or “curiosity,” the sentiment urges these pursuits, predicting that one day any damage done will be healed through “satisfaction.” Sure, there may be rifts in relationships or dead ends in research, but there will also be fulfilling anniversaries and inspiring bits of knowledge that make the tribulations worthwhile. Still, based on my own observation of Socks and Salem, I really don’t think they’re all that pragmatic in their curious antics. They don’t seek out “satisfaction.” That’s a human desire.

Like I said before, this wisdom wasn’t meant for them. It’s meant for us. So why choose cats as the metaphorical vehicle? 

My hypothesis is that it has to do with cats’ rumored reservoir of extra lives at their disposal. Particularly in light of the “satisfaction” supplement, it’s clear that the saying plays on the notion of redemption which requires that lives be easily lost and revived. That’s not really something that happens to humans, besides in religious or supernatural theories. Conveniently, though, there is an ancient tradition suggesting it may happen to cats.

In Egyptian mythology, the sun god Atum-Ra was said to have journeyed often to the underworld disguised as a cat. Atum-Ra gave life to eight other gods, and the theology took this to mean that she was responsible for nine lives — her own included. Over time, the mythology was passed through a number of other cultures, combined with other lived experiences and condensed into a simple legend: Cats have nine lives. Certainly, they could spare just one to teach us a valuable lesson.

Personally, I don’t think that lesson should be “suffer until you’re satisfied.” That’s not what my cats have taught me. As they frolic about the 800 square feet at their disposal, they aren’t denying themselves satisfaction. They are satisfied through their curiosity. They manifest their own happiness, enjoying life as they live it.

Sometimes I find myself on the periphery of their mischief. Salem will beckon me over with yearning meows, begging me to bear witness as he repeatedly headbutts the doorpost. Socks will scurry hastily around the room, sprinting across my chest with such ferocity that for a moment, I lose my breath. It’s annoying, but I’ve lately been trying to appreciate it more. 

It’s easy to find your own satisfaction, if only you know where to look. And I’m incredibly lucky to have two curious cats who are always willing to share their adventures with me.