Song by Malvina Reynolds
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same
There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same
And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
I think this song makes a very good point about life except that I disagree with people being put into boxes in university. It starts much younger now than perhaps when this song was written, but I suspect that it probably really began much younger then too. When we are born, we are all put in boxes made of ticky tacky (I’m not sure that is a real word, but my take on it is that it must be akin to flypaper or something else horribly sticky) which enable people to stick labels on the box as we proceed through life. I kind of imagine riding around in a box with people furiously writing things on paper just to stick to the box of some unsuspecting passerby while maniacally laughing at their own perceived cleverness distributing labels.
Really it’s probably more like labels just happen. You’re born-hooray!-here’s your box and first labels: boy, girl, white, black, Asian, Latino, Native American… Then there are familial labels which can vary, usually these represent things like culture, religion, socioeconomic status: Italian, Chinese, Nigerian, Irish, Korean…Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu…poor, middle class, rich. These labels stick with you in life, but as you get older, you realize there are even more labels on your box. School labels:ADD/ADHD, stupid, smart, gifted, Dyslexia, class clown, lazy. Religious labels become more complex: Orthodox Judaism, Catholic, Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Reform Judaism, Sunni Muslim. You may even get medical labels as you go along: Bipolar, blind, deaf, nuts, depressed, handicapped.
Just for the record, I do realize that some of these labels are not politically correct. As a matter of fact, some are insulting. That was on purpose. Why? Because in reality, many labels are not nice and uplifting. Labels used on people are not like labels on cans or food. They aren’t meant to help shop keepers organize and shoppers distinguish between water and vinegar. Labels on people are meant to make us fit in and conform. We categorize animals, plants, minerals, art, foods, etc. Basically everything has a category because no matter how unorganized we may be in life, it’s easier to see other people by their labels. What is done when an artist creates something totally new? Others freak out, try to put them back into an existing category by berating and demeaning the artist back into the box which is often met with defiance and possibly the rallying of others, then finally cave to public pressure and create a new category.
Art is a good example really because artists create. They do not copy what has been done before, but rather learn the skills of their craft and tap into the creative part of themselves that screams, “Hey! This world could be totally different.” and do something that reflects the world in their minds. (I know art can also reflect the world as it is, but work with me here.) Artists don’t do well in boxes. Just as live animals don’t do well in boxes, artists will chew and claw their way out of the ticky tacky box that was their cocoon up to the point they realized it was a prison. To most of us, the box is a cocoon or nest- I know who I am because others have told me who I am and I know the boundaries. I like my box. I don’t want to look at myself or question. Most people only look at the labels on other people’s boxes and treat them as they would different salad dressings in the store. I like this brand over this one. This brand is inferior, but this flavor is superior, etc. Just as we don’t want to see ourselves as the individuals we were created to be, we don’t want to truly see others as individuals.
Then there are those labels that aren’t nice, P.C., or useful. The ones that make us feel small or inadequate. The ones that make us different. Those labels have the power to keep us in the box with the hope that if one collects enough other labels, the negative ones will be covered up because of lack of space, but they also have the power to make us question. “Hey! I’m in my box just like you are in yours. Who gave you the right to say you’re better than me because I have a different label?” When we question we start to realize we are in a box, that we are confined and restricted. We take a closer look at the labels put on our box and those on the boxes of other people. Then we look at the people. Labels mean you act a certain way, think along certain lines, and conform to the rules. What happens when we notice that we have a label in common with others, but we don’t conform to the same set of rules? We all know that majority rules, so if you are the odd one out, you get a new label: bad. “Oh! You don’t learn like everyone else, you are a bad student. You don’t act the same way I do, you are a bad Christian. You question the way society works, you’re a bad citizen.”
Ever noticed that it’s the ones who broke out of their boxes that changed the world? Most of the time, they took a lot of flack for doing so, but then they were hailed as geniuses who were ahead of their time. Sometimes unrecognized until after their deaths as such, but they provide inspiration to others today. Not all of them were treated that way though. If they got a following, they were likely set during their lifetime. Support from others, the herd mentality, is rather essential to success. Most of the time that means finding others who think like you and will share ideas and support each other. The outcast groups in school and society. Sometimes we see in history that those kinds of people became leaders who challenged others to break out of their box, or at least change a label, and follow them. Revolutions were accomplished by little more than convincing people to switch a label and take out the ones that don’t. All were led by individuals or groups that broke out of the boxes that confined them and thought differently. Our world would be so boring without these people; it would never have been able to grow. Life seems to be made of two choices: break out of the box and live or stay in the ticky tacky box, live a ticky tacky life, and trade it for a larger non-ticky tacky box when they drop you in the ground.
However, is it really that simple? Can we really live totally outside of our box or free from the labels? What about the masks we wear? Do those who break out of the box then have to deal with wearing masks to make it through situations that require a label? Every brain is different and sees and interprets the world in a different way. We can be pushed and frightened into believing the labels as the norm, but then there are some brains that can’t ever truly live that way. They just weren’t made to conform. Those brains can only thrive when they live in a manner that conforms not to the norm, but to the truth as they see and understand it. Those minds can scare “box livers” terribly. They see them as dangerous and they remain the minority in the world, but can they truly ever break completely from the world?
Can we ever or do we have to disconnect completely from the people of the norm in order to live the way we understand life to be?