Boxes / by Michelle Cowan

We all grow up with certain pictures in our heads—certain patterns, images, routines, sayings, and models that we are taught (or teach ourselves) are right and wrong.  Absolutes, or near-absolutes:  This is the way a nice person behaves.  This is what anger looks like.  This is what a job is.  This is how good people feel.  These are the things I have to do before inviting people over.  This is a good food; this is a bad food.  I am capable of X only if Y is present. These are the milestones I must achieve to be successful. The list of possible notions goes on and on. 

In my view, these are all boxes.  As human beings, we feel compelled to organize, describe, and categorize our lives.  Doing so makes it easier to see our place in the world.  It helps us make decisions.  It helps us build a sense of who we are based on what we are not.  We put things in boxes so that we can move forward and live.  We have to have some basis for choosing our next moves, so we wrap them up neatly in boxes. 

Many people cling all their lives to the boxes they were given as children.  They operate according to rules that worked for others—or rules they were told work for others.  For me, however, growing up has been, if anything, a string of opened boxes.

To understand the world and live in a fulfilling, satisfying way, I have had to face the fear that my most deeply held beliefs may not be true.  And even if I couldn’t prove some of my boxes false to a scientific certainty, I have determined that many of them no longer work for me and are impossible ways for me to live.  The boxes must be opened.

We all open boxes in big and small ways.  A baby eventually learns that mommy is not magically disappearing when the baby can no longer see her.  Mommy goes out, does other things, and remains alive and present somewhere even when she is not with her child.  This realization is essential for the baby to understand what people inherently are and how the world works. 

Other boxes are opened in less natural ways.  Some people who grew up in an environment where one race or gender was valued more than another may discover one day that the undervalued part of society has the same worth as everyone else.  A person who was taught that being attractive is the only way to succeed in life might meet a few people who, although they are not the image of perfection our society worships, are highly successful and likeable people.  Those encounters can alter that person’s paradigm. 

Someone may think that people who live in a certain country or city behave in particular ways.  Then, she visits that place and sees that nothing is how she imagined.  In another case, someone may grow up in a given religion and, at a certain point, start questioning it and eventually leave or radically change his spiritual practice. 

I have had to question deep-down beliefs about how people should behave.  I thought that I had to always be prepared, always have a full-time job, always regard family with sacred awe.  None of those ideas are bad, but to view them as absolutes is completely limiting.  It’s like thinking some foods are bad and others are good or that being a certain weight will equal a happy life.  It feels comforting because choices are limited, and I can easily see where I stand success-wise.  If I eat X, I’m good.  If I weigh X, I’m good.  If I am kind to my parents, I’m good.  If I am gainfully employed, I’m good. 

None of those statements are true.  But it felt safe to have concrete measures to stack myself up against. 

I have grown the most when I followed the courage to question my core beliefs.  I haven’t necessarily made radical changes in every area of my life.  Some values I picked up as a child still guide me.  But most have been tweaked, and many are no longer part of how I view the world.

 I no longer have the same spiritual beliefs I grew up with.  I no longer dress in certain ways, just to fit in.  I’m no longer quiet about my emotions or ideas in order to be considered a “nice person.” 

I’m still in the process of ridding myself of a few boxes.  The “what other people think about me matters” box is still duct taped on some edges.  The fact is, sometimes what other people think DOES matter to me.  The question is, do I care?  And then, of course, I wonder, “Maybe it really never does matter.”  In this case, I made a new box: the “what other people think about me does not matter” box.  Although I’m not entirely rid of the first one, I can choose which box to apply in any instance.  I usually pick up the latter, but having the earlier one available is a comfort.  Perhaps it will deteriorate eventually from disuse. 

Boxes are not bad.  We need them in order to function in the world, make decisions, and form ideas about who we are.  But we need to realize that boxes are not unchanging.  They are not permanent fixtures.  And the boxes we own are not the only ones in the world.  We can pick up new ones, discard old ones, and refashion ones so that they fit better. 

Most of all, even when using boxes, I try to remember to open the tops and see how much more is out there.  It may be comforting to live in a tiny box for a while, but the wonders of life cannot be contained in a small space like that.  Or maybe they can…  This is the beauty of opening the lid.  Nothing has to be true forever.  I can be open to any possibility and learn new things all the time. 

Maybe I don’t need to be in X profession.  Maybe I can go back to school at age XX.  Maybe I can move to another country.  Maybe what he thinks doesn’t matter.  Maybe she is wrong.  

Life is enriched when we learn to remain open to all possibilities.  We can choose particular beliefs we want to vouch for, but we can also listen and learn from other ways of thinking.  When I see someone in a box, I’m reminded of how limited it is, but I am also sensitive to how difficult living without boxes can be—and that living entirely without them might even drive a person insane.  

As for me, I’m learning that I can trust myself to question life.  When I lived in Spain and went through a deep depression, I made a conscious decision to question my deepest beliefs.  Nothing I knew was working for me anymore, but I felt deathly afraid of leaving old values behind.  Instead of giving in to the fear, I made the choice to live life differently, under different parameters, trusting that I would be okay.  I believed that if the values I left behind turned out to be right, I would be led back to them. 

I questioned religion, family, school, music, and everything I’d ever been afraid to walk away from.  Bidding my old beliefs goodbye was the only route to sanity for me.  I have never regretted the choice I made in Spain and the decisions that have followed along that path of rethinking and investigation.  

Whenever I haven’t had my core notions challenged or learned anything new for a while, I start feeling less satisfied and more off-balanced.  Mental and emotional issues surface, and my eating typically goes at least a little wonky, too.  I may feel depressed or hopeless.  When those stretches of stagnation hit, it’s time to break out the box cutters.