Am I living in a box?

Richard Martin




80’s boy band Living in a Box did, apparently, sing other songs, but it was their eponymous debut single for which they will always be remembered, and which came to my mind the other morning. 

It was 10.30. I was on my third zoom call of the day. My third bit of what passes for human connection since my daughter went back to university. The person I was meeting was in a big box in the middle of my box shaped screen, and I was in a smaller box in the corner. I hadn’t been out of the house (shaped box) as it was cold and wet. I had seen my neighbour through my box shaped window, as well as various birds eating the last of the winter berries in my garden. And all of this was happening in the box room I have converted to a home office space.

They may not be made of cardboard, and for that I am of course grateful, but it feels very much like I am living in a series of boxes, and I am sure I am not alone. The conversation was with a number of respected colleagues who, doing the same sort of work, in the same business with the same sort of clients might be expected to have a similar perspective on how the next few months are likely to pan out pandemic and work wise. There could scarcely have been a bigger divergence in our views. 

On the one hand that speaks to independence of mind, the importance of keeping group think at bay and so on. Viewed differently (pardon the deliberate pun) it speaks of the challenge of perspective for us all right now. How possible is it to “see the bigger picture” when, for so much of the time, our view of the world, and the people we encounter in it, is constrained by the dimensions of our computer screen? How can you stand back and get some perspective when the world is in 2D? You don’t get perspective, you just struggle to see anything. What does it mean to think outside the box, when we are contained in a never ending series of them?

The answer I think is that now more than ever we need humility and curiosity. We need that ability to stand back from our thoughts, and to observe them as being just that, thoughts, separate and distinct from us and our sense of value and worth. And to know that they may be wrong, that the things we think, the way we see the world, the perspective we have, is limited now so much more than ever. And with that, we need the open mindedness to hear, and truly to listen to, the contrary views of others, with an attitude of generous possibility and wonder that assumes they may be right, or at least as right as our own, rather than finding the reasons why they are wrong. 

The danger also is that one’s views become victim to the echo chamber of the limited number of people in your bubble box with whom you are able to engage in free conversation (as opposed to the functional, agenda focussed meetings one tends to experience on Zoom). When one is living on one’s own that echo chamber can become monotonous. When contained in a box, the risk of losing perspective and objectivity, and with it the importance of seeking out and tuning in to the sounds from outside, become ever greater.

The other thing we can do of course is take what chances we have to get outside, away from all the boxes, and see the wonder of the world out there. The “birds” on my winter berries turned out to be a colourful collection of red wings, gold finches, coal tits, blue tits and wagtails. And the other weekend, as I enjoyed an evening stroll, looking up and out to get a broader perspective, I was treated to the splendour and enormity of the “Whole of the [Snow] Moon”, another 80’s classic from the Waterboys.