This article is an excerpt from Brave Talk, forthcoming July 2020 with Broadleaf Books.

  • Is it okay to question the ideas and beliefs we inherit?
  • How do we grapple with these things ethically and authentically?
  • Introducing: “The Paradigm Vault” – a way to think about healthy processes of questioning

The Paradigm Vault: A Way to Think About Healthy Questions

Asking questions, for some of us, might be scary. For those of us who have been rejected or punished for asking, it might seem like a threatening activity.

Whether or not we let ourselves ask questions is, in itself, a question. Here is a mental picture that might be helpful as each of us thinks through our relationship with questions.

Is it okay to question the beliefs and ideas we inherit?Every person, at birth, inherits a vault. This is not a vault we can see with our human eyes. It’s intangible, holding all the invisible things we have inherited: all the ideas, attitudes, beliefs, values, biases, and loyalties we have been handed. Our family, role models, community, and culture all deposit things inside the vault. Let’s call it our Paradigm Vault.

Though we have largely inherited the contents, our Paradigm Vault belongs to us, not to anyone else. Each of us has a right and even a responsibility to open our vault and sort through what’s inside.

If we choose to open it, we might find priceless treasures, we might find trash, or we might find toxic sludge. Most of us find sludge, trash, and treasure all mixed in together.

A lot of people don’t want to take a good look inside their vault. They know the vault is there, but they are perfectly fine with leaving well enough alone and accepting it all without question. Other people try to toss out the whole thing and start from scratch.

Maturity means sorting through our vault. It means holding tight to the priceless intangibles that we’ve been given—the things that make life meaningful and worth living—and gently disposing of what we don’t find to be healthy. For example, we might choose to keep “God is love” but get rid of “It’s okay to hit people who make me angry.” Maturity also means finding new treasures to add and working to pass down positive beliefs, ideas, and loyalties to others.

Whether or not we choose to open our vault comes down to a basic human right known as curiosity. Curiosity is a set of skills that might come more naturally to some than to others, but one thing is certain: curiosity is a decision. Do we choose to be curious? Are we ready to face the necessary action that might come as a result of being curious? Do we have the courage to question even the ways we question? How well does our curiosity about our own selves translate to curiosity about others?

Before we engage in difficult conversations, it’s important to go through the process of sorting through our vault and knowing what’s in it. That way, when we get to a place of trying to see someone else, we will have already practiced seeing ourselves.

The bottom line is this: it’s okay to question. It’s okay to question ourselves and others, to peer deeply into the inner workings of how we function as humans and how we relate to each other. Some would even call questioning one of the greatest joys and responsibilities we can know in this life.

Asking deep questions doesn’t mean we are throwing out the whole vault or trying to throw out someone else’s. It doesn’t mean we are being disrespectful. Asking questions means we are holding our past, present, and future with honor. We are showing honor to others.

We are practicing wonder. We are being fully alive.

Melody Stanford Martin - 15 posts

Melody Stanford Martin is a social ethicist and communications expert helping people of all ages develop skills of courageous dialogue and conflict transformation. She is the author of Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict (Broadleaf Books, 2020) and the Founder of Brave Talk Project.

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