Escaping the Box

August 26, 2009

There’s an old and painfully cliched concept I fine myself leaning toward quite often in my profession in the human services field- “thinking outside the box.” It involves conceiving of doing things contrary to the way that others might expect you to do it.  But I am going to go out on a limb to extend the meaning of this concept to cover something else.

Have you ever felt like you were stuck? Trapped, perhaps, in a cycle of endless repetition? You go to work, you come home, you go to work, you come home… despite variations introduced by sheer chance, your life otherwise feels restricted…. boring.  Like you’re trapped in a box. It’s been proven that those who can truly see themselves attaining results in whatever they aspire to do tend to fare much better than those who cannot envision the abstract concept of it. Whether it’s a desired goal weight, or dream job… maybe even that business you’ve always dreamed of starting… the best way to get there is to see it. And it’s something we, as a society, often have trouble doing. But why?

Education in the U.S. is divided into roughly 5 chronological stages : preschool, elementary (or grammar) school, middle (junior high) school, high school, and college/university/vocational school. With few exceptions, each stage is more and more discouraging of imagination and the free use and expression of it. At preschool age, children really develop their imaginations, in part because they lack the ability to conceive of the intangible, or that which they cannot see before them. So instead, they use their environments to create stories, and people, and situations that are often amazing in span… try asking a child about their imaginary friend, and they may tell you a story that would blow your mind. They create these things to explain what they don’t understand. Sound familiar? Remember those classes studying mythology? It’s a primal, human trait.

Next comes elementary school. At this point, kids learn to interact and communicate and are able to better combine their imaginations into group activities. Whether it’s a game of hide and seek, where kids make use of the areas around them to develop a good hiding spot, or sit down time dressing Barbie for her big date with Ken, or planning and building structures out of Legos, socialization becomes incorporated into the process of imagination and creation.

The next part is where I feel like things start to go downhill. Middle school is a time when the arts tend to be much less available to kids. More focus is placed upon logic and academic success or failure, and those who are seen to be “daydreaming” are often ostracized as unusual or antisocial by their elders and the peers who are more successfully becoming adapted to the lack of imagination and creativity that is expected of adulthood.

By high school, kids are often shuffled into two categories: the kids who will go to college, and the kids who will go right to work. The middle ground is vocational school, but your average egghead would hardly acknowledge a vocational school as equivalent to college education. Those who do not conform cleanly to either of these categories- writers, artists, musicians, actors… are singled out by their peers and their elders as delusional and irrational, and failures waiting to happen. Even fields that require some artistic skills, such as architecture, are so saturated with “tangible” subjects like math and geometry that the creative piece of it is almost totally lost.

By the time high school ends, some are already at work. These folks have generally lost all hope for imagination. It’s 9-5, or 4-12, or whatever hours you’re lucky enough to find yourself working, and then you go home. Creativity is replaced with the desire to party, since this is how adults “unwind”. Drugs, alcohol, and various other mood enhancing tidbits are used and a good time is had by all (responsibly, of course.

Ever heard of a “mid life crisis”? This is when people reach their 40s and start reflecting on their lives and what has happened and what hasn’t happened, with regard to how it’s affected them. People buy new cars, new homes, get new jobs… we’ve all seen the cliche of the man leaving his wife for a younger woman and a bright red sports car. But what does any of that really provide? If you truly want to get yourself out of your box, you need to be able to SEE yourself outside of it, and that is so hard to do when you’ve been trained to suppress your imagination.

And so, as a 30 something, I encourage all of you to set out to recover your imagination, and start doing it now. Take an acting class. Learn some improv, or hit an open mic night. Draw. Write. Paint. Learn to play an instrument. Your imagination and creativity may feel stifled, but you can get it back, and your life will feel so much fuller when you do. You’ll also find that when you flex your skills of imagination, it’s a whole lot easier to think outside the box.

4 Responses to “Escaping the Box”

  1. emmyem7 says:

    This is a really good point, mattatonic. Going to work, going home, opening a beer & watching teevee every night is kind of the standard. Obviously, not among all people, but a whole lot. Any sort of interest is good to have. It keeps you going.

  2. lee lee says:

    this is such a great concept…and (i think) our first “definition” of escape that is actually POSITIVE. thanks for that. 🙂

  3. I feel empowered! Of course, I likely won’t act on your inspiring words. But this is a great piece. Thx.

  4. ecrussell says:

    Great thoughts. Made me think a lot about the ruts or boxes I have been trapped in. Maybe writing – and reading this blog – is an escape.
    But two minor corrections:
    You forgot the 6th chronological stage of education – grad/professional school – the stage that goes to great lengths to eradicate any traces of creativity that somehow survived the first 5 stages…
    And mid-life crises? what are those? I thought writers were in their 30’s… Maybe third life crises? 🙂

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