Years ago, when my mother-in-law passed away, my husband and I went to the nursing home and collected her belongings. When we left there, we had four boxes of things. I remember thinking, how can this be? How can a person’s life of 80+ years be contained in four little boxes? It made me sad, but it also made me think about how the things we experience in life can be compartmentalized into four types of boxes: stackable boxes, hazmat boxes, storage boxes and gift boxes.
The stackable boxes contain life lessons and accumulate throughout our lifetime. They house those experiences we’ve had that teach us what matters and what doesn’t. When I was working on my master’s degree, I was also working a full-time job as an underwriter at an insurance company. I was scheduled to do a presentation on telephone protocol, and my supervisor looked down at my feet and said, “Do you realize you have on two different shoes?” Sure enough, I had on one navy pump with an ornamental toe and one black plain pump. She asked me what I was going to do since it was almost time for my presentation. I didn’t have time to go home and change, so I decided to roll it into my speech. Lesson learned? Turn on the light when getting dressed—and, more importantly, don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself in front of others. They’ll appreciate your humanity.
Some experiences aren’t quite as fun to recall as those that end up in stackable boxes. It seems we live in a world of people with short fuses who have no problem taking it out on unsuspecting victims. These are the encounters no one enjoys because they’re toxic to everyone involved and, hence, belong in hazmat boxes so their toxicity is contained. As a professor, I have had more than my fair share of toxic encounters, but recently I received a particularly mean-spirited email from a doctoral student that took me completely by surprise. Having been there before, I mentally filed it in the hazmat box and took every precaution to ensure it didn’t permeate every part of my day or week. Knowing how to compartmentalize in such instances can allow us to act rather than react.
Sometimes, things we experience are so memorable we want to make sure we always remember them; things we want to pass down from one generation to the next. These experiences we place in storage boxes for safekeeping, and they’re often relayed to others as maxims, or principles, for living well. When my oldest son was about four years old, he walked into the living room and saw me pulling the vacuum cleaner out of the closet. In utter astonishment, he said, “Mommy, what are you doing with daddy’s vacuum cleaner?” That moment was definitely a keeper and it opened the door to a lifetime of conversations about equality for men and women, inside and outside the home.
While every box serves a purpose, it is the gift box that houses those encounters we have in which someone is transformed because of something we have said or done. This is the box to really treasure because contained therein is a bit of ourselves we can leave behind. The experiences in the gift box remind us that our lives have meaning and that we’ve made a difference in the world. Not too long ago, I received a message from a former student telling me how much of an impact I had on her during her college years, stating, “I found my voice in your class.” For so many years, I wondered if my career in education had any real lasting value. I have been beyond humbled, and blessed, to learn just how important we can be to others—and, this is the gift—extending ourselves even when it seems fruitless or meaningless to us.
So, as I reminisce about those four little boxes we carried out of that nursing home, I realize that every life leaves behind a rich history of stackable, hazmat, storage and gift boxes. The material possessions in the boxes tell us nothing about a person. If we really want to discover who someone is or the legacy they’ve left behind, we have to unpack the boxes. Each one has a story to tell.