Boxed In

Yesterday, I watched the movie Pariah and as good TV often does, it gave me some things to think about. Pariah is a movie starring Adepero Oduye as a teenager dealing with family, identity and sexuality. She is a lesbian, trying to come into her sexuality and struggling for normality. Her parents relationship is faltering and she has only one friend. She lives a life where everyone knows the truth and EVERYONE is afraid to tell it, including her. And to keep up the delicate charade in which they all live, they hide all of the complicated pieces of themselves (even in cases where the truth is obvious), which makes it easier for others to label them, and put them in a box- and as such, makes it easier to deal with them. The story is both triumphant and tragic and it really forces you to think about the identity issues that we all struggle with.

As complicated as we humans are most of the time, we spend our lives searching for simplicity. We want the most basic version of things (except maybe Cable TV); most of the time, this goes for our friends and family too. We can all deny it, but the truth is that we label the people around us- purposefully. We do it to compartmentalize our lives, our feelings. The label you give someone makes your life easier- it tells your mind how to treat that person, how to react to them, how to feel about them. The problem with this system, is that inevitably people grow- and they become more than the box you’ve put them in, more than the label you’ve stuck them with. This can cause confusion- it can make you have to take on the involved task of getting to know people all over again- something that not many are willing to do.

Annoyingly enough, I’ve been in a box for much of my life (but I guess we all have). I’ve always been something, “The Smart One,” “Frank’s Daughter,” “Tia’s Little Sister.” These labels shaped everyone’s opinion about me, and all of their interactions with me. As I got older I became “The Book Reader,” “The Advice Giver,” “The Listener,” “The Advisor,” “The Girl Who Remembers Everything.” These labels were patterned after behavior I displayed, behavior that was simply normal to me. The problem, as I’ve mentioned before, is that somewhere along the way I became other things too- and no one seemed to notice.

I became a writer- but I can count on one hand the number of people who think of me as that. Maybe it’s because I’m not published, maybe it’s because they’ve never read my work, maybe it’s because they never see me writing. All of those are valid reasons- for those who don’t know me. But for those who do, that’s no excuse at all- because I’ve been saying it, and showing it, and proving it. I’ve been claiming it (or trying too) and so for those who know me, those who say they love me, it should be obvious by now- and I’m not sure it is. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t been confident enough, or because others haven’t. It could be that no one will see me as a writer until I’m successful at it; it could be that they don’t think I’m that good. I also became a foodie, more of a thinker and less of a talker; I became more of a social butterfly, and a bit more spontaneous. I became more confident and more free. These are all things I’m sure of; things I KNOW about myself. The thing is, I don’t know if the people in my life have even noticed- or wanted to acknowledge. Sometimes I feel like it’s more comfortable for them to think of me as they always have (as my original thought suggests). It’s better for them to label me and put me in that box- because then they know how to feel about me and what to say.

Conversely, this makes me think of my relationship with my brother. He’s younger than me, so it’s not too hard to see him as a baby- my baby brother. I see him, and I want to protect him. I want to take his hand, and tell him what to do. It took me a long time to accept that a) my brother is a grown man and b) he’s only three years younger than I am. He’s also a father now, which makes the transition even more hard, but even more necessary. As much as I might want to, I can’t hold his hand, or make all his decisions, or even raise his children. And I will alienate him if I don’t see him as he really is, even if seeing him that way is hard for me- even if I can’t protect him. I also noticed that my labeling of him kept me from taking him seriously- which is why it took me so long to figure out how insightful he is, how intelligent, how vulnerable.

Now I realize two very important things as I’m writing this. First, I realize that as an imperfect person, I am also guilty of labeling people so that I can better compartmentalize my life and my emotions (hence the example about my brother). I know that I am not exempt from the lessons I want other people to learn; teaching myself is the reason I write these things down in the first place. Second, I realize that some of this is my own personal burden. I say that because I know that you teach people how to treat you, and that the way you think of yourself is far more important than what others think. I know both of these things, and yet I still feel so strongly about this.

The reason that this message is so important to me is because love is so powerful. Familial love, romantic love, it doesn’t matter. Love makes you care what others think, love makes you seek approval. And if you show hesitation in your love, you could force the person who wants to receive that love to hide pieces of themselves to appear more acceptable to you; to fit into the label that you’ve given them. Likewise, if someone shows hesitation in their love for you, you may hide parts of yourself to appear more acceptable; to make their compartmentalization easier. But this is a dangerous thing- for how can you truly love someone when you can’t see them? And how can you ever truly be loved when you’re not being “seen?” Pariah teaches the great lesson that invisibility is not an acceptable coping mechanism; that blindness does not make it easier to love and be loved. Invisibility breeds fear and blindness brings resentment. And when the truth is revealed, we lash out, because we’ve been hiding and labeling for so long that we can’t handle the raw honesty of our emotions.

I believe that the solution is remembering that relationships are work. You have to love people enough to notice and acknowledge their growth- anything else is less than they deserve, and less than you deserve. Since it is only natural that people change, it should be natural to us that our relationships will change, but for some reason, it’s not. You have to make a conscious effort to know this, to accept this. You must endeavor to see all people, but especially the people you love, as they really are. I know that compartmentalizing is easy, it’s safe. And hiding makes you feel safe. But take that scary step for the people who love you, the people you say you love in return. Be honest with yourself- and with others. Always.

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