I spent my high school years in a small Northern New Mexico town that was perched along the southernmost foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Our team mascot, a prowling orange tiger, was painted in loud colors across the gymnasium’s external wall, which took up easily half of the entire school (decidedly sports were more important than academics).
The tiny rural community that surrounded the school operated through a network of distinct social definitions that served as cogs within some kind of working order. There were the cowboys, the miners, the Italians, the Slavics, the Hispanics, the Indians, the hippies and the wetos (Spanish slang for white person). I was disparagingly called blondie. My friend was called a Mexican with the same unfavorable edge.
The peas were never to touch the carrots, so to speak. Each pretty much stayed to their own. The more one stayed inside their lane, the safer they remained. Those of us who found such definitions too tight, and strayed, suffered mightily. Our punishment: the imposition of greater, crueler definitions.
I learned early the painful social implications of coloring outside my appointed lines. New labels came enthusiastically: snob, too cool, dorky, too good, too loud, weird, too pretty, not pretty enough, too tomboy, stuck up.
I was also called a brain. I made straight A’s in almost every class. I hung out with other brains, which wasn’t the worst box to live inside. We studied together. We dueled over test papers.
‘What’d you get?’ I’d ask David, the smartest guy in class, whose desk was strategically next to mine.
‘An A,’ he’d reply casually.
‘What’d you get?’ his question hung in the air between us as he waited, almost with a cringe.
‘A+’, I’d say, feigning regret.
But it wasn’t smarts that made the good grades. My smarts were too bored to truly engage with school. It was vindictiveness. Rage can make a great motivator when pouring over rote high school material. And rising above the highest GPA in the school seemed like my best shot out of the hell, and the sweetest payback.
There was only one class that my anger couldn’t get around. Geometry. Mr. Gallegos, a round short man in his forty’s taught the class begrudgingly in a droning Northern New Mexico accent. He passed out worksheets with such drab resentment it was almost painful to watch. I sat in the front row so I could get my head around parallelograms and the area of a convex polygon.
Everything was going ok until we went three dimensional. Then my brain could just not grasp the logic. No amount of revenge could help me crack the code behind the volume and lateral surface area of a rectangular prism. I began to tune out.
My mind would wander to Mr. Gallegos’ worn loafers as he snailed past my desk. I imagined him eating dinner with his wife in that beige modular home he lived in down the street from me. I imagined the avocado colored sculpted shag carpet underneath his loafers at the dining table. I wondered what on earth they discussed? Did she roll her eyes behind his back when he got up to go sit on his brown vinyl lounge chair to watch Barney Miller? What did he look like in pajamas? Did his wife wear them too? Did they kiss? Did he ever smile? I imagined Mr. Gallegos’ life outside the classroom, everything tinged in brown and beige. Even his brown dog was bored.
My daydream was suddenly interrupted by a loud dramatic throat-clearing. Ah-hem Mr. Gallegos coughed, looking fiercely down at me. My sudden startle back to class, and his uncharacteristic theatrics made me laugh out loud. Livid, he flashed a glare at me.
‘You are so stupid!!’ he screamed, as he threw his eraser across the room.
Well the entire class was just waiting for that cue. Another box. Another label to keep me from causing too much trouble in that peas-and-carrots town. Of all the memories one can carry with them from high school, oddly, that moment remained with me for longer than I care to admit.
You are so stupid.
I have spent more than Mr. Gallegos’ fair share of my mind wondering if he really meant it. Wondering at times if, well, maybe I am stupid. Wondering if I’m really just an imposter. In hindsight I see how impossible it was to learn anything inside the climate Mr. Gallegos created. He was an abysmal educator. A sad, resentful man chained to a job he hated. And I fret for today’s young people who are defined through an educational system that is broken and intolerably numbing. How many feel they are stupid or defective simply because they are viewed through a flawed lens of a wrecked system?
Those definitions are powerful. The beliefs we take on about ourselves as a result of external assessments and values require enormous discernment. And the world is happy to dole out as many boxes, labels and definitions as necessary for us to fit inside. The growing list of acronyms inside the DSM 5 being a case in point: ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD…Perhaps those teenage years made me sensitive to boxes. I began to notice them, notice the cost of living inside them, and the price of judging others by them.
Travel in adulthood lifted a veil. Many of the ascribed assumptions about who one was and how one was meant to live were challenged by my living and / or working in over half a dozen countries. Cultural concepts would fade the very moment I crossed over another border. What was deemed inappropriate in one country, was celebrated in another. Who I was as a woman in India was totally different to who I was in Amsterdam. Being a mother in America was much more constricted and stressful than mothering in Portugal.
This world view broke a perpetual spell, and immunized me against being susceptible to many of our culture’s prized precepts. Ideas like, you are too old to start a new business, or breastfeeding in public is inappropriate, thin is beautiful, or only college graduates succeed in life, run rife within public discourse without much questioning.
In his book The Biology of Transcendence, Joseph Chilton Pearce articulately describes culture. “Culture is a body of knowledge concerning learned survival strategies that are passed on to our young through teaching and modeling,” he writes. “It becomes the living repository of our species’ survival ideation and is at the root of every issue of survival. Culture, then, is a mutually shared anxiety state, a powerful catalyst of thought that converts all events into its own nature.”
Nowhere is this ‘shared anxiety state’ more obvious than in that precious, yet precarious moment in a client’s life — transition. Whether they are transitioning from a marriage, or a job, or leaping out of the cube farm altogether and risking everything to finally step into their true vocation, the angst is there to plague them. Some are tempted to listen to the angst more than their calling.
And what is the angst about? It’s all those boxes we’ve been taught to live inside — to be a good person, a good dad, a good mom, a successful manager. You know a box by the anxiety it produces in you. ‘But wait,’ a client will say in protest. ‘I can’t do that (whatever it is) because I’m not (fill in the blank) enough.’ It takes great courage to step outside of boxes. It takes resolve and practice not to listen to those limiting voices.
Try this little experiment. The next time you find yourself anxious, see if you can track it back to some idea about how you are supposed to be, or what you are supposed to be doing or not doing. My money is on you actually finding some concept, some box, that you are beating yourself up for not living inside.
Then, apply some curiosity to said box. What is the concept that creates it? What is the decree you by which are meant to live? Name it. Write it down. Let’s say it’s an idea like you should be better organized. Now examine it. Really? Is organization better than disorganization? Studies have shown that some creative genius actually works better in chaos.
So rather than stuffing yourself inside some kind of value that is not yours, perhaps your time and attention is better spent finding creative ways for your chaos to work for you.
I had a friend who had one whole room in her house designated just for chaos. She was an artist. She lived with a tidy partner, a Buddhist. He wanted order. He kept telling her that her messiness meant she had a busy mind. Pardon me but, bullshit. She was one of the most serene people I knew. She used to spend months meditating alone in a cave along the Ganges River in Northern India.
One day while showing me around her new home, she lead me down a hallway, and slowly opened the door to a large room filled from floor to ceiling. ‘And this….,’ she said grandly in her sweet English accent, sweeping the door open with great ceremony, ‘…is my clutter room.’
“If you trade your authenticity for safety, writes Brené Brown, ‘you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”
Contrary to popular opinion (another idea), anxiety can be our friend, as it is often the indicator of us stuffing ourselves into boxes. We become like an elephant jammed into a grass hut. We just don’t belong there. How do we know? Our anxiety is telling us. It’s basically our body saying, ‘Hey! This feels really bad! And you are not listening to me!’
Symptoms of a boxed life are, as Brené Brown writes, explicit. So rather than imagining a pathology attached to these symptoms, perhaps we can start to listen to our bodies better. Perhaps we can trust what they are telling us in the form of anxiety and depression. Perhaps we can start living more authentically. The creative and free life, the joyful life, implores for us to question the ideas that were handed to us.
Once you give yourself permission to question everything — every label, box and edict in our culture — then life becomes a lot more interesting. And a lot less stressful.
Is there some collateral damage? Sure. People are threatened when you dare to let the carrots touch the peas. When you color outside the lines, or — God forbid — throw the coloring book out altogether. ‘How can you look at yourself in the mirror?’ they might ask accusingly.
“I honestly believe that people of my generation despise authenticity, mostly because they're all so envious of it.” wrote Chuck Klosterman in his book Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story.
You may lose some ‘friends’. You may lose a Buddhist partner who values tidiness over love. You may lose your day job. But you’ll gain an adventure. You’ll be relieved of the arsenal of symptoms of a boxed in life. You’ll breathe. You’ll be able to look at yourself in the mirror.
You’ll gain the most precious gift of this world — you.