We put people in boxes. We need to let them out.

Inspired by my hero, Homeboy Industries’ founder Father Greg Boyle, I opened a staff meeting this week with a thought for the day, not unlike the one Homeboy posts on its Facebook page each day. It was sparked by my reflection on a volunteer who had passed away the day before. I’ll share an idea of what I said here.

We put people in boxes in our mind. Maybe we do it so we can keep track of them, to keep all the people we know organized somehow. I don’t know.

Sometimes we put them in boxes based on how we first met them. Sometimes we put them in boxes based on their worst choices. Sometimes we put them in boxes based on how they differ from us. Regardless, when we keep people in boxes, we miss a lot of their beauty, a lot of who they really are. We need to learn to let them out so we can appreciate the whole of them.

A lot of people on my team started their career with our organization in one role, but have grown in responsibility or changed streams or otherwise do something now that’s different from when they started. And in that process, they have to, at some point, remind the people they work with, and a lot of times remind themselves, that they aren’t in the same role as before.

This is a huge issue for parents, of course, who think of their 40-something multiple-degree-holding accomplished children as the same kid who didn’t know how to tie his or her shoes and who ate anything they could pick up off the ground. But it’s true for me, too; about 1/3 of our staff interned with us at some point, and not only do I not appreciate who they were before they walked into my life, but I also tend to remember them as interns long after they have outgrown that role. And I have to let them out of that box.

Sometimes we put people in a box based on their worst choice. I told the team the story Fr. Boyle tells about Frank, who prompted Homeboy’s tattoo-removal service. (It’s worth watching the 5-minute video if you don’t know the story.) And the volunteer I was remembering had made some suboptimal choices, nowhere near as stark as Frank’s, mind you, but still memorable for their impact on the organization. But to box her into those choices would have left out the hugely positive impact she had on our team internally and on her community externally. I kept her in that box way longer than I should have.

Sometimes we put people in a box based on how they differ from us. This volunteer, she liked the spotlight. We are all the heroes of our own personal story, I think, but her story seemed more dramatic in the telling than others, and I am someone who, despite initial appearances, dreads direct attention. I am allergic to compliments, for instance; I take them horribly and would rather not have the fuss. So because this person had a different style, I kept her in a “drama queen” box for a while, and if I didn’t let her out, I would have missed the beauty of her soul. I would have forgotten how quick she was to help me when a family member was diagnosed with the same chronic illness she wore so gracefully. I would have overlooked how gentle and kind-hearted she was.

We put people in boxes to make them easier to understand, and when we do that, we can fail to understand them at all. We miss some of the best parts, we don’t see their souls dance, because we trap them in a box. And maybe it makes us feel better to have the power to label someone and put them on an interior shelf, but the reality is whatever satisfaction we gain from that feeble, false power is more than overcome by the loss of encounter of the full beauty of that other person.

So if we catch ourselves putting someone in a box today, let’s be sure we let them out.

What I didn’t mention, because I try not to confuse Love Not Fear with work, is that one of the exercises that had such a huge impact in our interfaith “Love Lives Here” event was based on a video about boxes.

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