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[Chalice] The Box That I Came In [Chalice]

Presented January 29, 2017, by Steve Wiegenstein

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January is a month that few of us look forward to, and I for one am usually glad to see it go. With cold weather, ice and snow, uncertain travel, no baseball, and thirty-one days, January is for me a month of looking inward, learning patience, and remembering that the acorns littering my lawn only appear dead, but are in fact just biding their time.

One particularly melancholy ritual of January is the returning of Christmas presents. Having to take back a Christmas present has always felt like something of a defeat to me. Someone underestimated my waist size, or thought I would look good in mustard, or mistook my tastes in music. So off I slink to the store, embarrassed about how picky I am, and repentant at the implied rejection of returning a gift.

As you know, when you return something, the seller is always keen to have it returned in its original packaging -- "the box that it came in" of my title. Electronic retailers insist upon it, in fact. For some reason, this has always struck me as curious, although since I have not worked in retail I'm sure there are good reasons for it. But metaphorically, going back in the box we came in seems like a very suggestive idea, and that's what I'd like to think about today.

From the time we are born, we find ourselves in all sorts of boxes, socially imposed and self-created, and for better or worse we live in those boxes all our lives. Those of you who are cat owners know that cats have an irresistible fascination with boxes, and I suppose we humans do too.

I was born a country boy, as the John Denver song says, and that's a box I've been comfortable living in, for the most part. I do realize that it has limited me sometimes, but by and large, those limitations are ones I'm willing to accept. I was also born into the male and white boxes, and I'll be the first to tell you that I'm still coming to terms with the complicated and problematic inheritances of those compartments.

You hear a lot about "thinking outside the box," but it's only when you try to step outside the boxes you live in that you realize what a difficult task that is. A box is a confinement, but it's also a support. When I was a teenager, I was stereotyped as a nerd by my classmates, with some justification, although I saw myself as a much more complicated and interesting character, of course. But after my junior year, I decided I would push against the boundaries of that box by adopting a new persona. Since I didn't have my own car, and was not especially athletic, my options were limited. So I chose the "wacky goofball" model, the guy who will do anything for a laugh. I was the sensation of the cafeteria for a while, taking dares, volunteering to be the butt of jokes, imagining all the while that I was engaged in some sort of comic subversion of the rules. My friends were amused by the new me, but they didn't quite know to think of it, and in the end I just made them nervous. After a couple of years I went back to the nerdlike personality that everyone was more comfortable with, myself included. The expectations of others are a powerful force, even when we are aware of the limitations they impose.

And yet there's always the urge to push against those expectations, to break out of the box. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Robert Frost tells us. People often take that poem to be a straightforward endorsement of breaking down the artificial barriers between people, but a closer look at the poem shows us that Frost is aware of the ambiguous nature of the walls we build. In the poem, the speaker goes out in the springtime to find that the wall between his land and his neighbor's has lost some of its stones:

"I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go. . . .
There where it is we do not need the wall;
He is all pine and I am apple orchard
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."

The building up of walls, it seems, is the act of humankind. The breaking down of them is an act of nature. And although our speaker is tempted by the mischief of spring to tease his neighbor, who adheres to the folk saying handed down from his father that good fences make good neighbors, he nonetheless cooperates with him in rebuilding it, just as in every past year. He may imagine a life without walls, but he maintains them anyway.

So we live in our boxes and learn to live with them. I mentioned a moment ago about the power of expectations, and I'd like to return to that for a moment. When we talk about the boxes we live in, what we're really talking about is a set of assumptions and expectations about who we are, how we think, and how we'll behave. In other words, a stereotype. "Stereotype" is something of a dirty word, but cognitive psychologists tell us that we use them all the time, shortcuts that help us sort through the clutter of sensory experience and make decisions efficiently. Our ancestors evolved the ability to make swift judgments based on limited information. So in a sense our tendency to expect patterns of behavior, and to act in predictable ways as well, is bred in our bones. We're stuck with our boxes, in an essential way.

But when you ask people about those who have been most influential in their lives, or read the accounts of life-changing encounters in people's memoirs, one theme recurs. And you guessed it, it's about expectations. When people talk of the teacher, the coach, the relative, or the neighbor who made a difference in their lives, they say, "That person expected more of me than I thought I was capable of." Our heroes, in other words, give us bigger boxes to live in, a grander framework by which to define ourselves.

I remember when I was a cub reporter, fresh out of college, many years ago in southern Missouri. Looking for something to keep my mind active, I started attending a Great Books Club at a town about an hour away. And although I was a college graduate who had aced a couple of literature courses, and a working writer, the retired couple who led the book discussions were so deeply engaged with what we read, and on such a different level than most of my college professors, that they changed the way I thought about books for good. They didn't just study them. They looked at them as living things, argued with them, demanded more from them. And by changing the way I thought about literature, they changed the way I thought about myself. And they weren't even trying to do that. They were just being themselves, authentically and unselfconsciously, and in doing so opened up a new way of defining myself. A new set of expectations for myself.

All this talk of boxes and frameworks makes me think of a similar concept, one that used to be confined to the fields of media studies and political science, but which has found its way into ordinary conversation. That term is framing.

Back when I used to teach mass media, I would describe framing as the ability of the mass media to set the terms by which public issues are discussed, and how those choices of language influence the way we think. For example, do we talk about communist aggression, or international conflict? The way we frame the argument makes all the difference in the outcome.

Something similar happens at a personal level, in the way we make judgments of others, and of ourselves. Is that person free-spirited, or irresponsible? Am I unlucky, or a loser? Or something else entirely? In a very real way, our choice of language is a choice of what world we are going to live in.

If what I'm saying seems to imply that we are indeed living in a "post-truth" world, or "post-fact" world, our new current buzzwords, I'm not going that far. There are interpretations, which can change depending on how we see things, and there are facts, which do not. Facts are stubborn things, as John Adams is often famously quoted.

Last weekend saw the inauguration of the framer-in-chief, a man who during the campaign showed an uncanny ability to reframe the debates over issues in ways that worked to his advantage, and even extended that ability to the facts themselves. The relentless work of fact-checkers and opposing candidates in pointing out this false and specious reframing did not make enough of a dent in the minds of voters in a few key states, and as a result we now have a president who displays an astonishing propensity for whoppers, or as they were called in one memorable phrase, alternative facts.

I am still struggling with how to come to grips with this state of affairs, and I imagine that many of you are too. I am trying to be optimistic about the future but it's hard. To revisit my observations from the opening of this talk, about the melancholy nature of January, being optimistic right now feels a little bit like being the over-optimistic kid in the famous joke about Christmas presents. Please be aware that I grew up on a farm, so this is a farm joke. In the joke, the child's misguided parent, wanting to teach a lesson about the harshness of the "real world," boxes up a wheelbarrow load of manure and puts it under the tree. Upon opening the box, the child squeals with joy and dashes out toward the barn. "What are you doing?" cries the parent. To which the child replies, "There's got to be a pony out there!"

Such are the perils of feeling optimistic in January 2017. We got a box for Christmas, and we can't return it, and there's no pony in sight.

I can't pretend that I have an answer for what is going on in the larger world right now. I am groping for something that feels like a reasonable, authentic, and consistent response to the flood of strange and disturbing news stories that fills my inbox these days. What I can say is that the political turmoil of the past year is causing me to re-evaluate some of the boxes I have lived in quite comfortably over the years. I have long been a nonpolitical political person, watching the news shows and keeping up on events, voting faithfully and occasionally making a donation, but otherwise considering myself to be "above" the name-calling and mudslinging. It turns out that while I was imagining myself to be above the fray, people whose beliefs were the complete opposite of mine were taking over my statehouse and dominating the conversation, and rewriting the laws to make it easier for them to stay in power once there. So one lesson learned. A comfortable box might also be just another name for a trap.

Like many of you, I attended a rally on the Saturday after the inauguration, and although a lot of the people there were more raucous than I was comfortable with, and a lot of them expressed views that I didn't agree with, nevertheless I was glad I was there. I'm uncomfortable with what I consider vulgar language in public, so you can imagine how some of the signs and speeches made me feel. But if there's any cause for optimism from the last few months, it's in that reinvigorated spirit of group action that the women's marches around the country represented. And although I'm still not really a marching kind of guy, I'm looking forward to testing the boundaries of my box to see what sort of things I can do to bring out qualities in myself that have been desired but lacking.

I think what has inspired me about this week's resistance is the sense of moral urgency that it has taken on. My initial error was in thinking that this conflict was about policy and politics. But as the new president has taken power, I realize that behind the awful and bewildering wave of orders and pronouncements he has made is more than a politician I don't care for, or a policy I disagree with. There's a fundamental moral struggle going on, over how we treat our neighbors, how we act toward those who are a different color from us or who speak a different language, how much we are called to work for the common good, and ultimately, whether we choose to believe evidence and facts or the lies that fear and prejudice would have us accept. And that's why I think we all may have to push against the boundaries of our boxes for a while, and become someone who we might have been uncomfortable with a few months ago.

One last word about boxes. Any discussion about people and boxes would be incomplete without mention of the 1966 country music hit, "The Box That It Came In," by the great Wanda Jackson. When Sharon and I were graduate students, we had a friend who sang old-time country songs, and "The Box That It Came In" was one of her favorites. It's a classic he-done-her-wrong song, in which the wronged wife comes home to find that her louse of a husband has run off with a new floozy. And what's worse, he has cleaned out the house of everything valuable, including her own wedding dress, the skunk. As the words of the song state, "He took everything that wasn't nailed down, and the box that it came in was all that I found."

But in country music, as we surely know, the downtrodden always have room to maneuver, and our singer will not be defeated. She plans to go looking for her runaway husband. "And one day I'll find him, and I'll have peace of mind, and the box he comes home in will be all satin lined."

So let's take that as our lesson. We are all living in boxes, of our own creation or not. Let's make sure that the boxes we live in are just boxes, and not coffins.

2017 Steve Wiegenstein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegenstein, Steve 2017. The Box That I Came In, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20170129.shtml (accessed December 14, 2018).

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