I like to wrap my knitted gifts in boxes, partly because it’s easier, partly because I can make nice neat packages and partly because I can add ribbons and bows to make them look pretty. I also love to write out the label and affix it immediately so there is no mistaking who the gift is intended for. For years my tendency has been to find a box that matches the gift that will fit inside it. I like the gift to fit just nicely inside; I don’t want it to be swimming in space, nor do I want to have to sit on the box to get it to close. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men….
This year the first wrench in my neatly designed box-wrapping world revealed itself when after digging through our wrapping paper bin, I couldn’t find any box to fit my knitted projects. And then I remembered that even if I had found just the perfect box, our son-in-law Matt, loves to get a gift where the box in no way matches the gift! In his family, one of their traditions on Christmas morning is to stump each other by wrapping gifts disguised in crazy boxes having nothing to do with the labeling on the box. A box showing an ‘in the shell egg scrambler’ might in fact house some blue-tooth headphones! I think they have as much fun finding the ‘right’ box as they do finding the perfect gift.
My first inclination upon hearing this was to think that this was an odd tradition. I’d always loved it when the store where I made my purchase would offer me an appropriate box to wrap it in. It was only out of desperation that I’d need to improvise. And yet here was an entire family making a game out of improvisation.
And of course, this got me thinking.
We humans love order. We find it frustrating when we open a box labelled ‘outdoor lights’ only to discover garland and twinkle lights used for decorating the banister. Classifying, grouping, finding patterns, ordering and labeling is how our minds make sense out of things. When we are introduced to a new object or a new concept, or even a new person, our mind quickly goes to work and tries to figure out what neatly labeled box in our mind, this new thing will best fit inside. It relaxes us once we ‘make sense’ out of something new or foreign.
It’s confusing when we think we have a person figured out; we have them neatly placed in a box and labeled, only to have them reveal a part of themselves that in no way fits our labeling system. When this happens, our brains go into overdrive trying to reframe their behaviour in a way that allows us to jam them back into the box we created for them, close the lid and reuse our original label.
It’s even more frightening to think of all the opportunities that have been missed when a person has been labeled at a young age and has never realized they have the power to simply peel the label off and redefine themselves. Or better yet, to not define themselves at all.
If I had a dime for every student, new to my math classroom, who said, or had their parent say, “Annie’s (choose the name) not good at math”, I’d likely cry over the beautiful gift I could afford to buy myself. I’d always reply, “Oh! I’ve never met a student who can’t do math. I’ll bet you just haven’t found the right classroom yet. I think you might be in the right place now. Welcome!’
What a disservice we do to our children when we give them a label at a young age; it’s the same disservice we do to each other when we confidently slap on labels and then refuse to see any new possibilities. Even seemingly innocent labels are limiting. Labels like shy, careful, clumsy, athletic, artistic, logical, good, obedient, conservative, stubborn, Conservative, easy-going, liberal, Liberal, tentative, outgoing all force us to be seen in only one dimension. The truth is each of us has the capacity to demonstrate unlimited dimensions and unlimited possibility.
In my above description of how I love to wrap using boxes of just the right size, a person who does not know me well might justifiably jump to the conclusion, and label me as an order-freak. They would not be completely wrong but they would not be right. I do love order. I love the sense of calm it brings me. But there is nothing I love more than to discover a side of someone I thought I had ‘figured out’. I love to watch people break barriers and stereotypes. I love to encourage people to hone a skill they had been told they were ‘no good’ at. This part of disorder, I love.
Order, like all labels lie on a continuum. We are not either/or in any facet of our personalities. On different days, in different seasons, in different circumstances we slide up and down the scale, sometimes becoming more or less of a thing. When we feel labeled, or boxed in, it is as though we lose our ability to slide, to grow or become something new.
Matt’s family has it just right. They understand that the labeling on the packaging is not always a good reflection of the interior of a thing. They keep an open mind to what might be revealed upon closer inspection. They show an amazing, rare sense of curiosity not only when opening gifts but when talking with people. And this may be the best gift of all.
My inquiry for you this week is, ‘I wonder what’s inside?’
Elizabeth creates and facilitates custom workshops for corporate, public and private groups. She provides leadership and personal coaching for individuals and groups. Contact Elizabeth to help you use curiosity rather than labels.