07/06/2010 11:26 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are Americans Free Enough to Question?

by Carol Smaldino, CSW

When someone is paralyzed or crippled he/she experiences little to no freedom of movement. Freedom in this physical sense needs not only capacity for movement but judgment as to how far we can go before we get hurt. If we deny the basic facts of our particular physical limitations or the dangers of the forest in which we find ourselves, then we may die.

When it comes to our belief systems -- political, social, religious -- as to how we approach the living of our lives, the educating of ourselves and our children, we don't always know the limits of our knowledge, of science, etc. But to call freedom a "way of living" that excludes wondering and questioning, is to be blinded by an illusion of brilliance.

This year, our annual celebration of our nation's freedom from tyranny coincides with a heating up of the midterm elections. I submit that to reflect or stay reflexive may be the question of our times. Yet, it is because we so often sing odes to freedom and bravery at any cost with patriotic pledges that disallow the real questioning of motives or of justification, that we here in the land of the free are often rendered incapable of asking the hard questions about anything.

There is no freedom without questions. And there is little questioning that has value, unless we are allowed to mentally travel with mixtures of science, dreams, imagination, spirit and leaps of faith. If we cannot question the systems that structure our ways and limitations of thinking, then that very function of reflecting can be negated.

It takes humility to know the limits of what we know and to take steps back from our versions of history and glory. Yet, too often, the act of openly questioning our dogmatic adherence to some belief systems which we still consider modern is punishable by a sort of death in the arena of mass public opinion. I have said to a friend or two who profess to be Christian in religious belief, but who are easy-going emotionally, "How can you say we're equal if I'm going to Hell and you're not?" Whenever I hear some of the laws of any of the several religions of which I know just parts, I am amazed they pass for the norm in a society that so very much needs sanity of mind and body.

As a mental health professional, I know that reason isn't enough, that emotion, conscious or unconscious will determine not only what we study but whether we do at all. Emotions will determine how open or closed we are to new information, to experimenting, and to seeing connections not seen before. And, we cannot simply reject traditions without creating from what we have had, finding places for the collective needs for celebration and reliability.

Here's the rub: to question would mean to wonder about how it is that human beings everywhere (including here in America) have stayed within compulsions to divide and conquer or to become victims who forever seek revenge. The disharmony both within ourselves and in our world would seem to mean -- and this isn't even complicated -- that we focus on the human capacity to stop fighting long enough to approach certain problems with collaboration.

It saddens me that I find this line of questioning a solitary place. To me, it's alarming except that I have a good idea of how frightening it can be to examine our inner motives which drive us, especially if we can stumble upon what is most ugly to us. We have to be willing, if we are brave enough to question, to find answers as true as our borders of knowledge will allow.

There is hope here, says the unrelenting but worried optimist in me. I have learned the harder ways that passing through some territories of disillusionment, grief, sadness and even emptiness can mysteriously lead to renewals of internal oxygen.

The most inconvenient truths are the inner ones, the parts of us that enable terror and terrorism in our actions, in our passivity, in the entertainment that we feed our children. This includes what we will hear from other children who are watching us, should we choose for example, to listen to them about bullying in our culture and the wounds inside them rather than preaching to them of an absurdly named "zero tolerance."

In fact -- or even fantasy -- it seems that our capacity to tolerate the movement of our own brains and spirits and hearts and curiosity has to grow with perhaps some physical therapy and social supports that can help us all admit to all shades of evil and of light. Only then will our thirst for demons and demonizing lessen.

I am optimistic with conviction that such work can be done within the confines of a family and of a therapy situation. I have done some of that in my own life and in my professional practice. It isn't all pretty to face the demons inside rather than unite in hatred for those on the outside. But, it is oddly settling, and it paves the way for more space, for more openness within which to move, and to explore new information that can come in so many as yet mysterious ways.

We need a national intervention.

One of the inconveniences of going deeper into national self-discovery can be a loneliness because this kind of questioning isn't all that popular even within a mental health profession where many would prefer think they know the answers than to question their own insides. And yet, there are people yearning for deeper questioning and for company in this arena.

Since I can't very well pray, I still hope that more will want to share in conversations that bring openings rather than the airlessness of questions that are silenced or not even formed.