Getting Out of the Box

I was an electrical engineer for six years before changing careers to become a family physician. After I began medical practice, I found that some people who knew of my engineering background expected me to do well at analytical thinking and analyzing data also dismissed any possibility that I might have an intuitive or creative side. Even after I demonstrated abilities that exceeded their expectations, these people still maintained their narrow view.


Boxed In

We use the phrase, “to put someone in a box,” to mean that the person has been pigeonholed and typecast. It’s a form of prejudice, where one makes broader pre-judgments about a person based on limited or even irrelevant information.

Some examples of putting someone in a box include:

  • Assuming an intellectual person could not also be athletic.
  • Thinking a poor or homeless person must be ignorant.
  • Making assumptions about a person’s character or abilities based on the color of their skin or ethnicity.


Why do we do this?

I think it’s natural for us to try to organize and simplify the information presented to us. We feel in control, and the world around us becomes more predictable as we force inconsistencies to fit into our limited view. It also takes less effort, because we don’t have to listen or try to understand the other person. It can give one a feeling of power and superiority.

Despite promoting an explicit message of tolerance, our culture, including the news and entertainment media, encourages prejudicial thinking whenever it will further a particular worldview or narrative. For example, a person who sees compelling evidence for intelligent design will be cast as ignorant or religiously biased without the one who disagrees with them ever listening to their reasoning.

Regardless of the source, boxing someone in usually requires a measure of willful ignorance. When our encounters with others present us with information that doesn’t fit with our pre-conceived view, a decision to discount or overlook the additional data allows us to avoid making uncomfortable changes to our own thinking or worldview.

Sometimes the results of putting people in a box are minor, but in every case, we still sacrifice the truth for something else. The consequences can include:

  • Insensitivity to what makes someone unique and special.
  • Losing the benefit of someone’s particular contribution.
  • We stop seeking to understand and find answers.
  • We become complacent and stop improving.
  • Persecution.
  • Gossip and slander.
  • Discouragement.
  • Anger and resentment.
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness.


Gift Bags

God’s ways are different.

In I Samuel, we read about the prophet Samuel going to Jesse in Bethlehem to choose Israel’s new king. After seeing one of Jesse’s sons, Eliab, Samuel thought this man would be the one chosen. But the Lord told Samuel:


Do not judge from his appearance or his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart.         I Samuel 16:7


God delights in truth and not in falsehood or half-truths. Jesus was quick to point out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who said one thing but did another.


You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.            Exodus 20:16


Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.        I John 3:18


Our speech and actions should be guided by love and not the pursuit of power, the destruction of another, or selfishness.


Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.

I Corinthians 13:4-6


Following God’s ways gives us three signs by which we can recognize prejudice:


1) We seek to know what is in the heart and do not limit ourselves to external appearances.

2) We are passionate about discovering and honoring the truth.

3) We love others and seek their good.


The first two of these can be difficult to identify, for we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking we really understand someone else, or that we know the truth. We need a reliable source by which we can establish what is true, and two good places to start are Sacred Scripture and Church teaching.

The last sign will help us the most—finding evidence of love. Do we become impatient with someone who does not agree with our position? Do we treat the other person with kindness, or do we refuse to listen? Are we genuinely looking out for the other’s interests, or are we motivated more by our own ego needs? Do we brood and obsess when someone disagrees with us?

We should more closely resemble open-ended gift bags that are ready to receive more than closed-up boxes that let nothing else in or out.


Opening the Box


What should we do when someone boxes us in?

Some situations will have little impact, or the injury is minimal. Trying to intervene may cause more harm than good so the wiser course might be to shrug it off.

But when the consequences are significant, or the person who boxes us in is close to us, and we care for their well-being, we should pray for wisdom about the right course of action. If the Spirit leads us, then we can gently try to help the other person see the truth. Most of the time, our efforts will not be received well, for we human beings do not like to change. Regardless of the response, we should continue to demonstrate the truth through how we live.

Being put in a box can be painful and discouraging, especially if it happens repetitively. We look for affirmation and we don’t find it. We can begin to doubt ourselves.

If that’s happening to you, ask yourself: “Have these people really listened to me? Are their reactions based on knowledge or ignorance?” If they haven’t made an effort to know and understand you or your message, then forget them and move on. Find someone who will listen and make the effort. Then you can learn from what they have to say.

What can we do to prevent boxing others in?


Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. Don’t make broad judgments about others. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Never assume you know someone’s motives. It’s tough enough to understand the complexity of human motivations and impossible to do so unless the other person explains them to us.

Never use a label in place of a story. It’s one thing to talk about groups of people in generalities, like discussing trends among Millennials or investors, as long we remember they are generalizations. But we should never accept a label for a person in place of listening to his or her story.

Don’t turn your brain off or stop listening. Be curious and remain open to learning more. Consider every person a treasure box full of wonders and discoveries to be made.


Note: All scriptural quotations are taken from the New American Bible Revised Edition.

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