Boxes Upon Boxes
In the late nineties, there was a film starring Heath Ledger titled 10 Things I Hate About You. The film is a loose interpretation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, but with high schoolers in a Seattle suburb. At the beginning of the film, a current student shows around a new student. He explains the school in this way: “Over there you’ve got your basic beautiful people. To the left we have the coffee kids. Very edgy. Don’t make any sudden moves around them. And these delusionals are the white Rasta. They’re big Marley fans. They think they’re black. Semi-political, but mostly smoke a lot of weed. These guys . . . Cowboys, but the closest they’ve come to a cow is Macdonalds. These are your future MBAs – we’re all Ivy League accepted. Yuppie greed is back, my friend.”
This is obviously tongue-in-cheek, not remotely PC, commentary about America’s high school youth in the late 90s. It’s funny because of its element of truth. The groups that I remember include jocks, geeks, preps, Goths, band kids, hippies, theatre kids, and then emo showed up a little bit later. Each group could be characterized by distinctive clothing and taste in music, mostly, but also by attitude, mannerisms, and outlook. The youth used these groups, these categories, these boxes to express themselves. They used them to band together like with like. They used them to figure out where they belonged. These groups defined who was in, who was out, how they perceived one another. How they perceived themselves.
Simple categories that gained immense meaning in the lives of young people. The names of the categories have changed over time, as have the clothing styles, the lingo, and the characteristic music, but the presence of categories among young people and all people seems constant. I experienced it, our current youth experience it, you experienced it. Maybe we recognize it most clearly among youth because during a time of great turmoil of the self, each person must find something upon which to cling that seems clear, defined, and shared with others. It is constant satire in films like 10 Things I Hate About You because it is so important, so true – when we are young and as we age.
Boxes upon boxes inside of boxes surrounded by boxes. I see all of them around me, each with its own label scrawled in Sharpie marker. This is a rather new box with the words “summer minister” on it. This other one has been around for a while, the writing childish but careful to say “cellist,” next to it is one more clearly lettered “singer,” and both of those are inside of a box more simply labeled “musician.” Here’s a box where I keep all of my favorite board games, fantasy books, my copy of Firefly, and a few costumes only worn at GenCon – on it is written in big, capitol letters, “geek.” Ah, here’s a very big box that the world wishes would be pink but that I always paint over with purple; it’s often labeled “woman” but sometimes reverts back to its better worn and more cherished “girl.” Ooh, here is a box provided by all of that psychological testing required by the UUA for my credentialing process. It was printed by an old dot-matrix printer with the Myers-Briggs letters “ENFJ.” Some boxes are easy to see – “young,” “white,” “cis-gender female,” “middle-class,” “straight,” “liberal.” Wow. I feel like the front of this sanctuary is already filled, and I’ve barely gotten started. Thank goodness we’re in the realm of metaphor, or else I’m not sure how I can fit into this room, let alone all of you with your boxes, as well.
Boxes upon boxes inside of boxes surrounded by boxes. Maybe this image resonates with you? Maybe you’re beginning to see your own boxes?
All of us utilize categories to define ourselves. Many of our boxes we taped together and labeled ourselves. These boxes help us make sense of who we are and sometimes who we are not. They are our preferences, our moods, our favorite things, our expressions, and all of the adjectives we use to describe ourselves. On days when we are challenged or disheartened, we look for these boxes, tracing the words upon them with our fingers to remind ourselves that we can make it. Sometimes these boxes are the only things that can get us out of bed. When faced with an ethical trouble, these boxes help us find the way.
Sometimes you construct a box for yourself and find yourself trying to figure out just how it is going to fit. You see, one of the problems with boxes is that their shapes and sizes don’t easily change. You feel like you’re stuck with it because you put it there. Or, maybe you constructed it because you didn’t feel like you had a choice. You needed something, and that label seemed to work, even though it might not be perfect. It’s there now, so you make do and try to find some way to make yourself work with the box you have. It’s easier to try to change yourself than it is the box, even when you’re not thrilled about it.
See, this is where I start to resent the truth of the metaphor. Our boxes, so exceptionally helpful toward making some sense of the absolute chaos that is the inner truths of a human being, are also limiting. Sometimes, it feels like the boxes are all shut in around me and I’m waving my arms screaming to find the light, to break the boxes open and to breathe the fresh air. For me, many of these trapping boxes include the word “should.” You may find yourself trapped in other ways, but I am sure that you know the feeling.
Sometimes, I find that what is truly and wholly me – this tiny nugget of indescribable truth of who I am (hold up small, heart-shaped stone) - gets lost inside all of the boxes where I cannot see it anymore and cannot differentiate my self from all of the boxes. I wonder, is there anything to me that is not somehow defined? That is not imposed by me or by others? I have to believe that it is true, that at our core we are ineffable, we cannot be defined or described, that the piece of God I told the children about this morning is within us and can never be contained. The part of you that is more true than anything that could be said about it is transcendent, it is divine. I beg each of you to never lose sight of that, no matter how dark it may become or how difficult it may be to find. Please, remember that beneath the boxes upon boxes inside of boxes surrounded by boxes, you reside. And you are holy. (Big pause)
I just alluded to the part of all of our boxes that can be the most troubling and the most painful. Many of our boxes we did not create for ourselves. They are boxes that others have assigned to us, whether with reason or without, and we carry them wherever we go. Too often, the boxes that most drastically define how we are seen by the world were put there by someone else or by society as a whole. I’ve been lucky that some of those boxes fit just fine with who I am at the core, so I wear them with pride. My music comes to mind – when I was three and started taking cello lessons, it was wholly my mother’s decision. It shaped me, but I have also claimed it as my own. What of children who are called stupid and worthless from that age and before? Those boxes shape them.
When others tell us who we are, we are shaped by their words. I worry that the boxes created by others become more real than the ones we create ourselves. It’s easier somehow to believe something you hear from someone else than that which you know yourself. And, it is easier to believe that which is critical than the praise, whether it comes from without or within.
And then there are the boxes that are socially constructed. Indeed, in many ways these are the most destructive ones, and yet the most prominent. Gender, Race, Class. These things only exist because collectively people have willed them to exist, and then people use them to separate, to judge, to oppress. While we use all of our boxes to define ourselves and others, to bring order out of chaos both within our selves and out in the world, they also create categories of like and unlike. In and out. Boxes are inherently divisions, some healthy, some problematic. These socially constructed categories are at the root of all of our social justice work.
There is one in particular that I want to uplift this morning – Gender. At my college, there were two categories of students – those who had learned about social construction of gender in Intro to Sociology, and those who had not. The specific topic within this specific class was a world-changer. Once you had experienced finding out that gender does not equate with sex and does not exist outside of the teachings and constructions of society, you were in the club of understanding the entire world differently. Gender is socially constructed. This is not to say that there aren’t both nature and nurture arguments to be had regarding gender identity. It is to say that gender is a significantly more complicated concept than male and female. And, gender identity is a completely different topic from sexual orientation.
Gender is a box that is assigned to us at birth, based only upon our physical characteristics. Society puts us into the box female or male, and then it shapes us to make us fit. Most of the time, we accept the box and feel comfortable claiming it as our own, maybe with a little bit of tweaking. Girls are supposed to act like this, we learn. Boys act like that, we learn. We also learn to recognize others’ gender boxes – that looks and acts like a boy, but that looks and acts like a girl.
Gender, just like most boxes, doesn’t always fit; it’s one against which many struggle as they find it strangling them, hemming them in, trying to make them be someone they are not. How crushing that must feel. I cannot assume to have any concept of what it might be like. The consequences for breaking free of the gender box are so much greater than most all of the other boxes. Society pushes back in both subtle and explicit ways. There are the looks, the lost jobs, the harmful comments. And, then there are the violent expressions of disapproval.
I want to share with you the story of an African American transgender woman. Very early in the morning on June 5, 2011, CeCe McDonald was walking to the grocery store with other young, African American friends. When they passed a bar very near the store, strangers made racist and transphobic comments to them. CeCe responded that they would not tolerate hate speech, and one of the strangers smashed a glass into her face, cutting her cheek such that she required 11 stitches afterward. This began a fight in which one of the attackers was fatally stabbed. Although CeCe and her friends were the victims of hate crimes – verbal abuse and an attack based on race and gender – only CeCe was arrested. She is now serving a 41 month sentence in an all-male prison, which means that she’s held in solitary confinement for her own safety, all because she defended herself against hate-filled violence. I cannot imagine that she would have been prosecuted had she been a white, cis-gendered woman.
I know about CeCe because this happened in Minneapolis. Classmates at my seminary know her. I have seen grafitti on walls in the city simply stating “Free CeCe.” And, the incident took place in my neighborhood. In front of the bar that shares a building with my partner’s barber. CeCe was walking to the grocery store where I shop.
And CeCe was one of the lucky ones, if you can believe it. Too often, transgendered persons are killed simply because they did not fit into their assigned gender box. They expressed their genders differently. And, because transgender persons reside outside of societal norms, their deaths do not appear in the media. Horrific, violent deaths to which no one pays attention, that the police do not investigate. This is why Transgender Day of Remembrance is observed every November 20th, to be sure that we take the time to notice, to remember. We must notice. We must remember.
All of these boxes upon boxes inside of boxes surrounded by boxes. When we see a person, this is what we see. Some of those boxes fit, some of them do not. Some we expect, others catch us by surprise, and others yet are not obvious. Just as we know that the boxes others see do not make up all of who we are, we must take the care to remember it is true of everyone we encounter, as well.
Think about all of the boxes in your life. What do they look like, what words are scrawled upon them? Which of your boxes have you created for yourself, and which were given to you? These questions run deep, even in playful metaphor. They require you to ask, “How do I define myself? How do others define me? How do I let others define my sense of self?” As your answers emerge and surface, consider whether you see the connection between the definitions and that of you that transcends definition.
Do your boxes really fit?
It’s okay if they don’t. You are ultimately the one to decide whether to keep them or to tear them apart in favor of new boxes or maybe in some cases no box at all.
May each of us remember the presence of boxes. Boxes upon boxes inside of boxes surrounded by boxes. May we search inside of those boxes for the true person within, the piece of divine truth, both within ourselves and within those around us. There may we seek to reside.
May it be so.