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The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You Are In It

man in a box

I was in the Christian church for fifty years. I spent twenty-five of those years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I was a fervent, dedicated, committed believer of the “faith once delivered to the saints.” I believed it, practiced it, and lived it. When I was in the Christian box, it all made sense to me. Everything I read, everything I heard, and everything I experienced, reinforced the belief that I was in the right box.

God told me, the Bible told me, my friends and family told me, and the opposition of the world told me, that I was in the right box. Every once in a while, I would take one step outside the box and experience a bit of “other-boxedness.” However, after every foray into the world outside the Christian box, I would return to the safety of the box.

This is the way I lived my life for almost fifty years. Then one day, I decided to take more than one step outside of the box. I haltingly, tentatively took a few steps, staying close enough to the box that I could run back if I needed to.

Over time, I wandered farther and farther away from the box. I found all kinds of things that were not in the box I was in. I was confronted with data, beliefs, ideologies, facts, and practices that I had never heard of. I was uncertain about what I should make of these new-found things.

I talked to fellow box-keepers about this. They cautioned me about wandering outside of the box. Bruce, nothing good happens outside of the box, they told me. Everything we need for life and godliness is right here in the box. We even have a manual that tells us how to live in the box.

But I continued to wander outside of the box. One day, I wandered so far outside the box that I realized, for the first time, that the box sat on a steep, slippery hill. And there were other boxes too, all of them on that same slippery hill. The first time I noticed this, I quickly retreated to the safety of the box. Then one day, I found myself far outside the box. I turned around to look longingly at the box and I slipped, and before I knew it I was slipping and sliding down the slippery hill. On this day, I fought and clawed my way back up the hill and crawled back to the safety of the box. Dirty and bruised, I was safe within the box once again. The box was my salvation.

But it wasn’t. My mind was filled with thoughts of all the wonders I found outside the box. Things that people in my box said were bad for me; things that they were sure would ruin me. They told me that The box was all I needed. They feared I was becoming a wanderlust.

And they were right. I wandered once again outside the box, and just as before, I fell down the slope of the slippery hill. This happened to me many times before I finally gave up and stayed at the bottom of the hill. When I did this, the box I had lived in for almost 50 years was no longer large enough for me. For the first time, the things I had lived with in the box seemed odd, peculiar, and contradictory.

When I was in the box it all made sense. It all fit. But now, outside of the box, at the bottom of the slippery hill, the things I once believed now seemed to be the strange language of an alien culture. I found myself saying, I can’t believe I actually believed _________________________. It seems so crazy and incoherent now, yet when I was in the box it all made sense.

I can’t go back to the box I was in. As a secularist now, as a person who values skeptical, rational, and critical thinking, I must always be aware of other boxes around me. Every box’s occupants say that they have the truth. Every box’s occupants want me to take up residence in their box. However, I have learned, perhaps the hard way, that living in the narrow, blind confines of a box keeps me from experiencing the world that exists outside the box. Every box’s occupants think they are unique. Their sameness cannot be seen until one is out of the box — all of the boxes.

Experiencing the world outside of the box changed me forever. I know I still have a penchant for box-like thinking, but I revel in a life free of the constraints of any box.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Wow, I also had been seeing some of these very things especially since I haven’t been going to “church for over 5 years now. It is amazing how much more clearly I can see things than I did when I was in it all the time. Even my mother who is a died in the wool stay in the box person has been some easier to deal with since her health has been such that she couldn’t attend church any more. But thank you for hitting the nail on the head.

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    I can apply this not just to Christianity but I recently left the box of a 12 step recovery program (Narcotics Anonymous) as well and found the same thing….Mlst of it is bullshit and is in every way a box just like a religion, right down to worship of the Big Book or Basic Text book.

    • Avatar
      Justine Valinotti

      Monty, I was thinking about the twelve-step programs as I read Bruce’s story. I was in two programs and, in both, they tell you that if you step outside of their box, you will fall right back into addiction.

      Part of the reason I stayed was guilt. My first two sponsors died (of HIV-related illnesses) and I felt that leaving the box would dishonor their memory. But even they told me to “take what works and leave the rest”. I could have followed their advice and stopped going to meetings long before I did.

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    • I believe the box is culture, in whatever place you are found in, yet, I believe, the love of God towards us and our love of God back to Him is not ‘boxed’ by this world, in any time we live in or through or by…
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      That is fine that you wish to attribute your ability to enjoy love to some God firgure in your head. But when I read about love it always refers to human beings not some idea of the invisible realms. Still, go for it if you please.

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    Typo: “But is wasn’t. My mind was filled with thoughts of all the wonders I found outside the box. Things that those in my box said were bad for me;” Should be ‘But it wasn’t.” Need “it” not “is”. I also prefer: “things that people in my box…”

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    Not only did I outgrow the box, it became moldy and nightmarish. It hosted lies about how the universe worked. It taught fear and distrust, even distrust of oneself. It couldn’t adapt to the changes I was making in the outside world. I threw that nasty old box of horror away.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    When I think of the idea of being ” inside the box” it puts me in mind of learned helplessness. Being ” boxed in ” and cornered in a box canyon. I made my most important life decisions while in the grip of Christian shibboleths. I agreed to things that I’d run from today.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Being inside the box is another way of describing learned helplessness. To be avoided like the plague. Like the Orange Toddler’s re-election !

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    Kathleen Minch minch

    It is great to live box free – to be open to new ideas and evidence. To really try to care about all the living beings beyond ones tribe. To try to envision a society that is just based on evidence and research. To be able to change ones mind and do things for the greater good. To be curious and engaged and open and make your own mind up – these are character traits to be admired.

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    Barbara L. Jackson

    My box was technology and capitalism. Look at all the wonderful companies silicon valley made!. I worked doing computer programming of various types my whole career. Even at the beginning when I was an engineering aide with a HP calculator, I just programmed that.

    I now realize the companies of silicon valley were/are not all wonderful. Google has places people can sleep at work so they will not need to go home. Your whole life is your career which in silicon valley usually ends by the age of 40.

    I now realize automating everything will not necessarily fix what humanity needs. Amazon has automated as much as they can and still treat their employees badly. It’s like the beginning of industry in the late 1700s to early 1800s all over again.

    Humans need to realize that we are now one world society and need to take care of each other and our planet. Neither capitalism nor socialism will fix everything. We need to experiment and see what works. Since so much automation has occurred and will continue to occur we need to realize everyone should have basic rights such as water, food, housing (even if small or basic), and health care which is provided by human society.

    We have automated away too many jobs to think most people can earn enough to take care of themselves and their family.

    Thank you
    Barbara L Jackson

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I see similar automation processes at local manufacturing businesses. The reasons are many, but the human toll is evident. Lots of available jobs around here, paying a $11-$14 starting wage — hardly a living wage. Families are sinking in a swamp of debt, unable to stay even or get ahead. I made $8 an hour in 1979 working an entry level union job at a local manufacturing concern. I had awesome benefits, with health insurance that didn’t cost me a dime. 40 years later, local laborers make $3-$6 an hour than I did, with outrageous insurance premiums and high dollar deductibles. The American “dream?” It doesn’t exist where I live.

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    Mr Gerencser, what a great metaphor your box is!! I can see that you and the commenters here have great courage and intellectual (or spiritual?) agility even to see the box–much less to leave it and fashion a good life outside of it. Outside the box you take responsibility for your own decisions and priorities. I doubt that the founders of faith or “-isms” intended their disciples to fashion a box out of their visions, but it happens. (And best of good fortune to all of us finding our way.)

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, there’s no shame in admitting you once believed in things that are demonstrably false or simply absurd.

    Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I believed enough in the all-encompassing power of God, the “supreme sacrifice” of his son (the mother lode of Catholic guilt) and the infallibility of his representatives that I couldn’t tell anyone a priest did something that didn’t seem right—let alone name it: The term “sexual abuse” wasn’t in the vernacular of my milieu.

    Later, as an Evangelical, I believed in the inerrancy of the Bible—never mind that I could only read translations. What I really bought into was an ideology that used its God as a cover for anarcho-capitalism,’white supremacy and female subjugation. Somewhere during that time, my secondary sources, if you will, became “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” (Ironically, Ayn Rand professed to be an atheist.)

    Oh, and I actually believed I was serving “my country “—a term so many people parrot, as I did, without knowing what it actually meant (much as right-wingers do with “critical race theory)—as an Army reservist.

    In the end, all of those beliefs were scaffolding (as was my marriage) holding up—just barely—the most gargantuan yet most shaky of my beliefs: that I was a heterosexual cisgender male.

    While I sometimes lament what I wasted on,’and whom I hurt, with those beliefs, I don’t regret those times. For one thing, the Army helped to pay for my education. For another, the time I spent leading a Bible study group, editing a newsletter and writing pamphlets led me, if circuitously, to my avocations of teaching and writing. And living as a cisgender heterosexual male helped me to understand the struggles faced by people of all gender identities and persuasions.

    Perhaps most important, I understand what it’s like to, and why, hold onto a belief for dear life. If nothing is heavier than a secret, no secret is more crushing than carrying a secret but living as if something else entirely were true.

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    Thank you for this article Bruce. Yes the sense of freedom and relief to exit that box❗I’ll never forget the feeling. I described it then (8 years ago) as a caged (boxed) canary who discovered had wings and as soon as the slightest little crack was torn away the daylight was allowed in (to my mind) and my fluttering to escape strengthened daily as I tore open the crack more and more. Until one day I was like a fledgling …… I dated to escape and fly out and away.
    The FREEDOM and sense of relief were overwhelming. My joy was unbounded. I learnt about this world … the geology and and how it developed, our human beginnings which entranced my previously undeveloped mind and knowledge. I had arrogantly thought that I knew it all. Now the excitement of learning all this new information about our earliest beginnings in my old age has given me a new lease on life. I began to be humbled by what I did not know. What a transformation for a 66 year old years ago. I love life and cannot stop wanting to learn about all I had missed in my earlier years.

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