Writers try to avoid using clichés. These figures of speech generally become trite and stale with overuse. The phrase “thinking outside the box” easily fits that description. Its meaning is clear and useful: we are challenged to be open to new ways of looking at a person or group, at a problem or a belief. But the expression is now so common that it has lost any novelty or resonance. I was therefore caught off guard and pleasantly surprised when I came across a variation of the cliché which sounded neither trite nor stale as it fell upon my ears:
You cannot think outside the box until you realize you are inside a box.
I recognize that I may be the only adult in Bruce and Grey Counties who had never heard that phrase. But I was excited and felt a need to share my enthusiasm with anyone for whom this non-cliché is also brand new. As a writer bound by ethical guidelines, I attempted to attribute the profound quotation to its creator — but failed. My search engine came up empty.
When vainly googling for a source of the expression, I did encounter several pithy sayings which were cute and clever spin-offs from the original “thinking outside the box”cliché. The best known of these is Deepak Chopra’s “Instead of thinking outside the box, get rid of the box.” Currie Flava adds: “—understand that there is no box.” Corbie Mitlied extends the metaphor: “Think not only outside the box—, but outside the room where the box is stored.” Tim Ferris ups the ante with this assertion: “—it is not enough to think outside the box. Thinking is passive. Get used to acting outside the box.”
Admittedly, these are all catchy and witty words but, in my opinion, they still miss the point. How can one think beyond the box, get rid of a box or act upon any new insight unless one first recognizes that a box exists?
Many current headlines reflect a —“what box?” mind set. RCMP officials are accused of being blind to systemic racism built into the structure of the force. MacLean’s Magazine (August, 2020) describes the organization as clinging to a long-outdated institution which is an “—intensely hierarchical and change-resistant culture.” Why change if there is no need to change? Following the tragic and very public death of George Floyd during an altercation with Minneapolis police officers, white Americans were challenged to look with new eyes at the pervasive problems afflicting their black fellow citizens. In response, sales of two relevant books immediately and dramatically increased, placing them high on current best seller lists.
Robyn DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility’ (2018) was quickly “rediscovered” by a much wider public while ‘How To be an Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi (2019) attempts to “educate” even socially progressive readers about the need to think outside their comfortable liberal box. Kendi asserts there can be no passive neutrality on the issue of racism. Each book provoked a strong backlash from both black and white critics.
Canada does not remain free from criticism. Robyn Maynard’s 2017 polemic: ‘Policing Black Lives’ tackles the issue of police carding and racial profiling in Canadian cities and reminds readers of the well-publicized deaths of black and indigenous men during encounters with officers. On a different theme —
Over many years working as a marriage counsellor, I frequently and sadly encountered husbands who were shocked and dismayed when their spouse walked out of an unfulfilling marriage or found her needs for intimacy elsewhere. I can still hear these men articulate their surprise: “I never knew we had a problem.” That is a classic example of not knowing they were contentedly living inside a box of false assumptions. Why change if I see no need to change? Fortunately, once past the shock of the divorce threat or adultery, couples could sometimes slowly rebuild their relationship, but now on a new ground of awareness and understanding—well outside the box.
In my long religious odyssey, I initially became stuck in a somewhat rigid position of being blind to those high walls of a box which limited me from any wider understanding of theology. I possessed the “Truth” so there was no need to recognize and appreciate that there may exist other paths to spiritual growth and fulfillment. I have since evolved.
The best way to determine whether one is in danger of complacently existing inside a self-erected box of misguided thinking and wrong ideas is to ask someone close and trustworthy enough to be honest. A simple: ”How can I improve?” or “Am I in a blind spot?” is a good start. Learning to listen but then being open to change is another remedy. Too often, individuals, political parties, employees-employers or different racial groups merely engage in what I call a parallel monologue, each talking past the other. A modest but better goal is mutual understanding, even without necessarily finding agreement.
One cannot begin to think outside the box until one recognizes they are living in that trap of illusion and false assumption. What would result if we completed a process of honest self-assessment and consciousness-raising? Individuals and ultimately the world’s competing forces would move closer toward reconciliation and finally live together in greater harmony and peace, sharing the common space we occupy on our weary planet.