Journeys to Humanism, theHumanist.com’s regular series, features real stories from humanists in our community. From heartwarming narratives of growth, to more difficult journeys, our readers open up about their experiences coming to humanism.
This article was originally published on the Becoming Human blog.
There once was a child who was born in a box. The box was in a treehouse high off the ground. The child grew up in the box feeling safe and loved. One of the reasons for this is that the grownups in the box told the child that they should feel safe and loved because “it” was with them. In the box.
There was a story in the box that everyone knew. It was the story that defined the people in the box. (There are about two billion people in this particular box.) There are other people who are not in this box. The people in the box talk about themselves as “us” and the people outside the box as “them”. They talk about “us” being “saved” and “them” being “lost” or worse, “damned”.
Some of the people outside of the box live in other boxes. The treehouse is filled with boxes. Big boxes and little boxes. Boxes of all shapes and sizes. Actually, inside of every box, most of the people think of themselves as “us” and anyone outside of their particular box as “them”. This is how the treehouse continues to function throughout the ages from one generation to the next.
The treehouse of boxes plays an important role in growing human beings. The box provides parameters for making sense of the world. Language and story. Rules and rituals. Politics and economics. Science and religion. Metaphysics and mystery. Ethics and morality. Terms of group-think and confirmation bias. Lenses for viewing everything inside the box. Blinders for whatever may be outside the box.
Many people are born, live, and die within the confines of the box. To them, the box is reality. It includes life, the world, god, the devil, heaven, hell–everything. (Well, maybe not hell, because hell is for “them” not “us”.) They cannot conceive of anything outside the box. A main use for gods and the supernatural inside the box is to provide explanations and assurance about the unknowns beyond the box.
The box is not reality. Reality is reality. The box exists within reality. And as life goes on, reality has a way of breaking through the walls of the box.
Coming of age inside the box, the child went to live inside a tiny-box inside the box. The people in the tiny-box thought they were even more special than the rest of the people in the box. They took the rules more seriously, and held themselves to a “higher standard”. In fact, to the people inside the tiny-box, the rest of the people in the larger box took on the identity of “them”. They might as well have been outside of the box altogether, for all the people in the tiny-box cared. Because the only people the people in the tiny-box really cared about were themselves.
The child-coming-of-age did their best in the tiny-box. Followed all the rules. Lived by the higher standards. Looked down their nose at outsiders. Felt superior. And had a sense of safety, but knew very little of love.
Over time the cracks in the tiny-box became obvious to the child-coming-of-age. The child began to realize that living by sheer effort and force of will was impossible. And exhausting. And according to at least one of the stories in the bigger box, the tiny-box way was not the only way. The child-coming-of-age began to experiment with cutting themselves some slack (box-dwellers call it “living by grace”) instead of white-knuckling everything. The child came out of the tiny-box and back into the box. The child was now a young adult. Getting a job. Finding a partner. Starting a family. All while still inside of the box.
But their time in the tiny-box inside the box had changed the child-now-young-adult. Something still felt missing. The child was still looking for love.
So the child-now-adult entered seminary in order to become a professional teller of the stories of the box. At some level, the child-now-adult wanted to become an official representative of the box’s religion, culture, values, and god. The child’s unconscious hope was that, if they filled a sacred role in the center of the box, maybe then they would be loved.
Along the way, life happened in the ups-and-downs way life always does. Reality began breaking through the walls of the box. Here and there the child-now-adult glimpsed the world outside of the box. Even so, the box still felt real enough and the child could still make reasonable sense of life in terms of the sacred stories and sacraments of the box and the people in it.
One day in the box, the child-now-adult had a new-child in the box. The new-child was born prematurely and had special needs. At less than a year old, the new-child’s heart stopped, was restarted, and the new-child lived two more years in heart failure. During the new-child’s life, the child-now-adult tried to keep making sense of these new difficult experiences in terms of the stories of the box.
Just before their third birthday (and three weeks after the child-now-adult was ordained as a professional teller of the stories of the box), the new-child died.
And the walls of the box came tumbling down. The stories rang hollow. And they didn’t work anymore. The god and devil, the heaven and hell of the box had proved imaginary. With the death of the new-child, the child-now-adult, newly minted as a professional teller of the stories of the box faced a dilemma.
The child-now-adult clung to the bare floorboards of the box for six more years. Going through the motions expected by box-dwellers of other box-dwellers. Observing the feasts, the festivals, the seasons of the box. Telling the stories and celebrating the sacraments of the box. But their experiences with the life and death of the new-child had changed the child-now-adult forever. They had seen the wider world. The world beyond the box. And had discovered that it is filled with people who embodied and practiced the love the child had been looking for all along.
One of the curious features of boxes is that prophets arise within them. Prophets that speak of reality transcending all boxes. Some of the prophets in the child’s box were Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus of Nazareth, and Mother Teresa. Other prophets in other boxes in the treehouse included Siddhartha Gautama, Rumi, Ram Dass, Carl Sagan, Hafez, The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Alan Watts, and others.
In order to continue as authentically as possible as a professional teller of the stories of the box, the child-now-adult experimented clinging to the floorboards of the box by speaking less and less about metaphysics, the supernatural, and a personal deity and speaking more and more about the historical box-prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, his words and actions, and how he treated people.
This experiment worked for a while. The box-dwellers were comfortable with Jesus. They had made him into a god so they would not feel so bad about not following his example as a human being. As the six years drew to a close, the child-now-adult’s experiment telling stories about the human Jesus was about to run its course. The patrons of the box-congregation concluded the child-now-adult was not aligned with box-priorities, box-culture, box-religion, and box-mores. So they pushed the child-now-adult out as the professional storyteller of their box-congregation.
And the child-now-adult experienced sadness and hurt and immense relief. They had been looking for a way out for a while. The floorboards of the box in the treehouse finally fell away and the child-now-adult landed freely on the .
The ground of love. The ground of compassion. The ground of reality. And the child-now-adult began to experience more fully the love for which they had been searching their whole life. Many of the people outside the box are naturally welcoming, having discovered that real human nature is grounded in love and compassion. They have learned this by embracing themselves as part of the interconnected web of everything. They were not welcome in boxes anyway.
The child-now-adult didn’t reject the box outright, they just didn’t need it anymore. Whatever was true in the box is true in every other box and is still true in reality. It’s just that what the people in the box think is true about the box, are the things that make the box, the box. Box truth is circular and designed to keep people imprisoned in the box. This constriction is not in harmony with an expansive reality.
No one really knows if there are gods or goddesses or what will happen when they die. A personal deity is primarily a psychological device upon which people project their hopes, dreams, anxieties, and fears. Heaven and hell are not geographical locations in an afterlife; they are two ways people experience this life. Reality invites people to live with what is–-as it is–-recognizing that pain is a given; suffering is a choice.
In reality, everything and everyone is sacred. Reality is always changing. Clinging to permanence is a source of suffering. The stories we tell ourselves in our own heads and in our collective boxes are just that: stories. They may be more or less useful as we use them in life-affirming or life-limiting ways.
Now the child-now-adult practices living in the world as a beloved adult human being. Not knowing answers to ultimate questions, showing up with other people as they are, and acting with compassion. Being fluent in the language and story of the box they grew up in (as well as knowing some about several other boxes) serves the child well in their work of companioning people during difficult times.
But reality is not reducible to a language or a story or a box. Reality just is. With all its beauty and pain and mystery and uncertainty, reality is whatever happens. Reality is here for the embracing. Jump!
James Jarrett describes his early life in religious as living with a “box within a box within a treehouse.” Learn how he climbed down to the ground.
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