A few weeks ago, I made a trip to the city recycling center. We’ve never been pleased with the quality of our trash hauler’s recycling efforts, so we collect our cans, bottles, cardboard and newspapers in the garage. When we can’t stack one more item on the growing pile of consumption, I’ll load up the truck and head up to the north side of town. It is usually the cardboard boxes that are the earliest to teeter in a threatening pose of imminent revolt.
An urban recycling center in its utilitarian starkness may not be the most suitable place to wax philosophical. But as I tossed box after box through the open door of the large roll-off container marked CARBOARD ONLY, I began to think about the purpose and significance of boxes in our lives. Each and every box that I was recycling was a container of some sort, meant to protect a product from the time it is produced, through the transit, storage and marketing process. Once it has arrived in our homes, the box has served its purpose and can be recycled. While there are likely a thousand ways we could be more environmentally-friendly with our product packaging, the box has proudly earned its place next to the wheel and sliced bread in the annals of human invention.
If the box is such a grand example of human ingenuity, how have the metaphorical boxes in our lives earned such a negative reputation? Somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century, the phrase “thinking outside the box” was spawned in corporate culture to signify creativity and unconventional thinking. If the box is such a wonderful invention, why would we want to crawl out of ours, much less think outside of it? Because we’ve forgotten to recycle them once they’ve served their purpose.
Any of the limitations or conditions we face in life can define the walls and shape of our metaphorical boxes. Sometimes we build our boxes for ourselves. Nearly every decision and certainly every commitment and contract we make adds definition and thickness to our box. Other times we agree to live inside someone else’s box, for want of trying to satisfy their needs and expectations or as attempt for self-preservation. Even more often, we create neat little boxes in which we expect others to obediently reside.
Not all the boxes we create for ourselves and others are bad. The boxes that we create for our children as they learn and explore are there to protect them from true harm and help them discover themselves within the boundaries of the box. Our most successful and satisfying relationships are those where there is a mutual understanding of trust and boundaries — where the box doesn’t limit one or the other, but allows both to stand on top of the box and reach higher than either could by themselves.
When we hear dissatisfaction from our family, friends and acquaintances, they often describe feelings of being trapped and limited. Of not being able to reach their full potential. Of someone or something holding them back. Each and every one of these people is trapped in a box. It may be a box that they thought would protect and support them in their lives. The problem is that a lot of boxes look quite different from the inside.
Perhaps we need to start looking at our metaphorical boxes like the cardboard boxes at the recycling center. Many of our lives’ boxes will fulfill their purpose or outgrow their usefulness. When our boxes become more of a prison than a protective container or a foundation on which to stand, it is time to find a box cutter, slice the box down the side, and fill our truck for a trip to the recycling center.