Be Driven By Curiosity, Not Fear. (First of Three Parts) Posted on February 7th, 2020 by

There are so many things to fear in this world.  People who cheat and get away with it, people who lie and get away with it, people who bully and get away with it.  On and off the court.  Climate changing faster than we can keep up.  People who do not look like us or speak our language or practice our religion or love the type of people we love or or or or or…..

It is enough to paralyze a person.

A curious cow picks up a tennis racket.

But there is a cure.  You can choose to be driven by your curiosity, not your fear.  And it can change your life and your game.  At least it changed mine.

My dad was a doctor, a wonderful and compassionate one.  He was driven by his curiosity and desire to help.

I was going to be a doctor.  I was driven by my fear.  If I didn’t become a doctor, what would I do?  So, I went to college and started that path, blinders on to keep from seeing any other possibility, blocking out any noise that there might be a different path for me.  Until I met Kawamura san, a farmer whose family I lived with for a fall while studying in Japan for a year.  He had been a classically trained violinist in Tokyo, but his true desire was to start a dairy farm in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island with a climate closer to Minnesota’s.  He packed up everything and went to Denmark to study dairy farming, and fell in love with it. When he returned, he left Tokyo, bought a small piece of land, cleared it himself, and began.

He and his wife and four children lived in a three-room shack with ceilings you could reach up and touch.  They were living in poverty.  I lived in an unheated room above the cows (his whole herd numbered only 11 by the time I arrived) who occupied the cow shed below me.  They had almost nothing but a dream.  Someday, he said, he would build this farm to sustain an alternative farm for kids from the city who were troubled, to come to study, live, work, and be loved.

But he kept giving things away.  When a farmer – who he didn’t even know personally – 30 miles away lost all 40 of his cows to a typhoon, Kawamura san came to me and told me to take extra special care of his best calf, to give it an extra handful of oats, to brush it with extra attention, to sing to it (yes, that was a direct order, because he believed music reached places nothing else could reach, whether human or cow).  I asked him why.  He said because he was preparing to give it to the other farmer.  I challenged him, because I was a wise 20-year-old.  “You can’t do that.  You need this calf for your own herd.  You said, yourself, this is the calf that will be the future foundation of your herd.”  He looked at me with more patience than I deserved and said, “The other farmer needs it more than I do.  So it’s not mine, it’s his.” End of discussion.

While I was living on the farm, Kawamura’s neighbor, Arai san, who had immigrated from South Korea and experienced entrenched prejudice wherever he went, took me aside.  Arai san’s herd was growing, and he was building a brand-new barn.  He was thriving.  Faster than Kawamura.  He said, “When I immigrated here, I was looked at with suspicion and hatred.  No one would talk with me.  Except Kawamura.  The Japanese people have a deep distrust of Koreans, going back centuries, and most Koreans who live in Japan are treated as second-class citizens or worse.  Kawamura saw, when I arrived, that I was not going to make it.  I was failing and out of money and didn’t have the land I needed to survive.  He sold me half of his land and helped me get the loan so I could stay.  Kawamura gave up half his dream so I could have mine.”

I asked Kawamura about this.  He said something unusual for a Japanese person in 1979.  He said, “When I returned from Denmark, I realized I had seen too much of the world not to be changed by it and act on it.  In Japan, being Japanese is the most important thing.  We are one, very homogenous nation.  Anyone who looks different is never let in or accepted, anyone who believes different is never let in, anyone who loves different is never let in.  When I returned, I could no longer believe those things.  And, so, I do not consider myself a citizen of Japan.  I consider myself a citizen of the world.  And I try to act accordingly with everyone I meet.”

This farmer, living in poverty in the middle of nowhere in Japan, was upending my entire world view.

Then came the day a neighbor farmer was discarding a broken down old shed to build a new one.  Kawamura could not afford such a luxury, so he took the old shed from the farmer piece by piece, and was going to reuse the old wood to build a “new” structure on his farm.  I got the horrible, menial job of pulling the nails from all the boards, a task that would take all day and every word in my swear vocabulary.  As I sat there disgruntled, Kawamura walked over to me.  He said kindly, “You have a wonderful opportunity here.”  (I thought, if this is such a wonderful opportunity, why aren’t you pulling the nails)?  “You are doing a physical task that requires no thought.  Your mind is free for an entire day to dream, think, examine your life, wonder.”

And in doing so, my curiosity was stoked.  I opened the door, the door I was scared of, to consider what a life not being a doctor would look like.  Without that moment, that day, that man, my life would have been completely different.  He believed that curiosity is not an enemy, but a friend.  Not a curse, but a gift.  I have tried as best I can to live my life by that since, when it comes to learning from other cultures, religions, races, sexualities, and genders.

Cows too have a passion for music, not just humans.

Without Kawamura, I would not be here at Tennis & Life Camps.  I would not have had a 25-year career as a singer/songwriter. I would have been most likely safe, most likely quite well off (hmmm, that part would have been fun!!!), and most likely unsatisfied with a life I chose by fear, not curiosity.

It is funny how, as I think of it, curiosity is a lot like love.  It is open.  It is welcoming.  It is creative. It leads you to places you could not have imagined could be so beautiful. And it gives for the sake of giving.  What door do you need to open in your life that you are currently scared of? Try peeking in. I’d be curious to see what happens if you let curiosity be your guide.

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  1. Brad Olson says:

    Thanks Neal! We al need more curiosity and love in our lives. Keep these great gems coming!

  2. Gaylon Rust says:

    Really inspiring story and challenge to stretch ourselves and live unselfishly.

    Thanks Neal

  3. Bart Kosen says:

    I completely love this Neal. Wonderfully written and impactful. Thank you for sharing brother!

  4. sven says:

    Beautiful story…we all can – everywhere and at all times- reflect , grow, learn …..:)

  5. David Sommer says:

    Finally in my old age I’m living by curiosity not fear. Never too late.

    • Neal says:

      So great to hear! Was just talking about you today with Thue Rasmussen, another person who lives by curiosity (started tap dancing lessons at 86!).

  6. Joyce Hagberg says:

    And now dad and I know “the rest of the story”

    Thank you! 🤗
    Mom and Dad

  7. John Wilkinson says:

    Thanks for your story, Neal. Curiosity is a wonderful thing.

  8. Peter Whitis says:

    Beautiful!! Thanks.