Unpacking Boxes

One task that I find simultaneously exciting and dreadful is moving. In full disclosure, I intend to engage in this activity fairly soon, and while I look forward to being in a new space with great anticipation, the process is a grueling one that I do not anticipate. The idea of being surrounded by clutter is not appealing, the process of unpacking is quite literally a painful one, and yet the idea of progress is necessary and exhilarating. And so, we move. We unpack. We hurt our backs with the heavy lifting. We stretch ourselves beyond what is usually comfortable. Once unpacked, treasures are found, things are in its rightful place, and there is comfort. There is also a feeling of accomplishment and awe at the beauty and clarity to be found. We stand in a once packed and cluttered space, where there was barely any room to move around without bumping a shin or a hip or stubbing a toe, now in a room that is clear and well put together.

As a sociologist and public speaker, I frequently use language that illustrates movement toward equality. One phrase that I frequently use is, “Let’s unpack this.” Most often, what I mean when I say this is, “Let’s consider the deeper meaning here. Let’s make the invisible visible.” Indeed, when things are in boxes, while we have an awareness that they are there, they are invisible. Unpacking makes those treasures (and sometimes the rubbish) visible and we are able to do with it what we will.

A few months ago, I was in a training discussing equity and diversity and some individuals were visibly and audibly uncomfortable. There were groans and eye rolls, and one individual said to me that talking about such issues was divisive, as he leaned back, arms folded with a scowl on his face. There was resistance, and avoidance of eye contact, and anger. It occurred to me that these faces, these sighs, these groans are the same reactions to moving and unpacking. It occurred to me that this is exactly what literal moving and progress looks like in the early stages. I was reminded of how powerful this connection was for me. The use of that language, unpacking, had real significance in this context of social justice and equity. What I wanted to do in my training was encourage participants to change or, at the very least, consider their address, and acknowledge the existence of the boxes. It was their choice to either unpack the boxes that they had piled in their current address, or move to a more comfortable space, unpacked and with freedom of movement. In that moment, I was legitimately reminded of the relationship between the discomfort and moving and the discomfort of moving forward, both happening on a psychological and physical level. Progress is never comfortable.

Imagine being in a new room in your new, spacious home. This room is filled to the brim with boxes. After all, you have just removed everything from one home to another, and so our room is filled to the brim of all of the things that we have had for years. In a literal sense, we might have trinkets, or gifts from our mothers, or books from our educational experiences, or things that we have collected as we have experienced life. But these are the same items in our figurative boxes; things like knowledge and belief systems gained from our families, ideas from our educational experiences, personal experiences that we may sometimes generalize and hold on to for sentimental value and safe keeping.  But, whether we mean this in a literal sense or figurative sense, the room is filled to the brim with boxes, and the boxes are labeled; “kitchen,” “living room,” “bedroom 1,” “bedroom 2”… or boxes labeled, “race,” “gender,” “sexuality,” “religion,” “social class,” “ability/disability,” – just a room full of boxes. Unpacking these boxes is not fun, but I must assure you that it is necessary. Can you imagine moving into a new home and never unpacking the boxes labeled, “kitchen”? No plates, no glasses, no cutlery, no dish rags, no cooking utensils, no pots or pans. Just a box in a room that we refuse to touch.

Sadly, a good many of us have learned to move within and navigate our spaces without ever unpacking the boxes. We sometimes never even acknowledge that they are there. Meanwhile, we have the tools available to handle real life situations if we would simply unpack the box. In a figurative sense, we might even suggest, “Yes, these are my boxes filled with my beliefs, stereotypes, experiences, and things I just ‘know.’ Yes, I know I probably could unpack them, but this is just the way my home is set up. I don’t WANT to unpack them, because that would make me uncomfortable temporarily. So, no. Leave me and my boxes alone.”

For some of us, however, we are afraid of opening our boxes for fear of what belongs to us. Some of our belongings are painful to look at. We fear that if exposed, we must admit that some things that we hold on to is rubbish or not socially acceptable. So rather than opening the box, rather than discussing, we keep the boxes tightly sealed; sometimes for the fear of embarrassment of socially unacceptable beliefs, or sometimes because those things are so painful to admit that we even attempt to hide them from ourselves.

Indeed, we must feel safe to open our boxes. There is a need for self-preservation that sometimes prevents us from progress; as stated, progress is painful. We need to be sure that the people that we share the contents of our boxes with will be allies and will hold our belongings gently, with care, and safekeeping. When in trainings and classes, I recognize that often people will share with tablemates or in private rather than unpacking before an entire group. That version of unpacking is valid, and it is valuable, and is in keeping with the theme of self-preservation. We don’t want people to mock our belongings, from the old, tattered things that we’ve carried with us all our lives, to the random knick knacks that we have picked up along the way, to the newer things that we just grab on impulse without considering the implications. All of these things are in boxes and we must feel safe to unpack them.

Nevertheless, progress demands that we push through the discomfort of unpacking. Undeniably, moving from one space to another comes with some reservation (“Maybe I shouldn’t unpack this…”), regret (“I should have just stayed in my old, cramped, studio apartment…I should have just left these things in boxes because now, look at all of the work I need to do…”), some guilt (“Why do I do such things to myself? I really don’t need this much space…”). And yet, we have moved and cannot be fully comfortable, nor fulfilled while the boxes are packed. We cannot navigate our homes freely with literal boxes stacked, nor can we navigate the world freely with our figurative boxes packed. We either tiptoe around gingerly while still bumping things, or we must remain in one place to avoid being bruised.

But imagine the freedom of having things in their appropriate place. The freedom that comes with having cutlery and pans in the kitchen at our disposal, and the freedom of getting rid of long held stereotypes to have a larger and useful social network, personal relationships, and workplace productivity. Imagine unpacking the figurative boxes to become allies to members of marginalized groups and changing our world. Simply imagine the freedom.

To be quite clear, however, this is not to say that once we are unpacked that we will be completely comfortable. We have not yet arrived. There may be times that we must readjust or move things around. There may be times when we need to shine things up, and dust, and clean pots and pans that we have dirtied. We may have to acknowledge that some of the things that we brought with us into our new space is rubbish, it doesn't fit the decor, and is better left in the dumpster. Some ideas and stereotypes, some of our belongings, we simply must do away with. Others items might need to be replaced, or at the very least, re-tuned, to fit. And unfortunately, sometimes we may even need to move again to a brighter, even more spacious space.

But that’s just it. We cannot work with the things we own until we unpack them. What this means in a figurative sense is that we cannot confront the -isms until we “unpack them” and make them visible. Then, we can be free to navigate the world without consistent bumps and bruises. It is freeing. It is equity. It is allyship.

Now, in the words of the great John Lennon, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday that you will join us. And the world will be as one.”

Let’s unpack. I’m ready to help.