Something my parents actively encouraged their children to do was to ‘think outside the box’. They led by example in this, making many decisions that raised eyebrows along the way. I still get funny looks when I tell people that I am one of seven siblings, and that most of us home-schooled at some point. During my high school years, we hosted a weekly dinner for a group of 30-odd international students. On her tiny stove, mum would manage to cook massive pots of coconut rice, and litres of curries. The nights would inevitably end with the furniture being pushed back against the walls so we could wildly dance through the house. People would ask ‘why?’ and answering ‘because it’s fun’ never seemed to quite satisfy them. When mum decided to study Mandarin and ended up living in China several times (with my dad and various siblings in tow), a lot of people were genuinely startled – supportive, but startled nonetheless. I think a lot of the reactions came from people wishing they were able to do something like that, but feeling (for whatever reason) that they couldn’t. Being raised to think outside the box is something I am grateful for, but it is something that I often expect of myself, no matter the context. On occasion, I catch myself feeling sorry for people who happily accept the norm. This is a slippery slope – if you end up compulsively resisting the norm because it is the norm, you are really just putting yourself inside a different kind of box.
Mid last year a colleague announced to our team that he had a bunch of free-trial vouchers to give away for one of those meal delivery services. Now, despite my general outside-the-box-ness, I have some strange and stubborn ideas about the ‘right’ way to do certain things. Hanging laundry and making beds are examples that anyone who has tried to help me out with housework will recognise. Another example, I came to realise, is that having a box of ready-to-assemble ingredients delivered to your door, then chopping and cooking them into tasty meals isn’t ‘really’ cooking. There was some part of my mind that felt it was cheating to let someone else do the hard work of choosing the meal and selecting the ingredients; in order to ‘really’ cook, one should suffer through the entire process on one’s own. I should clarify that I only apply these bizarre ideas to myself… if you want to hang your clothes crooked or leave your sheet crumpled under the quilt, more power to you. The only person I judge regarding these things is me, which highlights how altogether ridiculous these ideas are. Still, without giving it much thought, I inwardly rolled my eyes and declined the voucher.
Shortly after my colleague’s announcement, I experienced the sudden and unexpected break-down of a lovely relationship. It was awful. I was heartbroken, and overwhelmed by the shock and grief of it. Although I was in a bad state, one part of my mind fixated on the true fact that I needed to keep eating, and eating healthily. I tried, but I just couldn’t get myself to think or care about meals, let alone slouch my way through aisles and aisles of groceries, let alone actually cook anything. So I swallowed my pride and decided to think inside the box. I accepted my colleague’s offer of a free trial and had a box delivered to my door.**
It was delightful. It took all the thinking out of dinners. All I had to do was chop things and cook them, and it was quick and tasty and easy. So easy. I was hooked, and ended up subscribed to the ongoing service. The weeks passed, as they do, and my heartache slowly eased, as they do, and my dinner boxes were delivered like clockwork. I can’t overstate how much of a life-saver it was to have that element of life taken care of, to know that healthy, easy food would arrive at my door without me having to spend any emotional energy on it. But as I came out of my sadness cocoon, I began noticing the trade-offs. The subscription was pretty reasonable, cost-wise, but it was more expensive than my usual grocery shop. The packaging was excessive – I’ve been making a concerted effort to cut down on plastics, and even though a lot of the packaging was recyclable, the fact is that individually wrapped portions of cheese cumulatively create a whole lot of waste. There was a substantial amount of wasted food. Even though the box I ordered was only for three meals, if I ate out or didn’t have time to cook that specific recipe a few times a week, I found that the fresh food went to waste. I get a particular kind of guilt-trip from veggies festering away in the bottom of the fridge. I hate it. I switched to getting a box fortnightly, instead of weekly. That reduced waste, eased my guilt, and allowed me the freedom to plan my own dinners again. That’s right, after three or four months I had reached the point where I wanted to pick meals and shop for ingredients again. Over summer, I paused my subscription because I knew I was going to be socialising like mad, then going away for a few weeks. Since arriving back, I haven’t un-paused the delivery. I feel like I am ready to get back into the swing of regular shops and meal making. In fact, I am looking forward to it. But I haven’t crawled all the way out of the comfort of the box yet. I haven’t unsubscribed. And now I am the one with a bunch of free-trial vouchers to give away.
This experience has given me a bit of perspective on what ‘thinking outside the box’ can mean. For me, it’s not just aligning your choices to oppose what you perceive to be expected, or mainstream, or ‘inside the box’. It’s not a reaction; it’s certainly not a way to seek attention. Thinking outside the box is making choices that are good for you in that particular moment, no matter who else is doing what. For me, thinking outside the box is a path to managing my expectation of myself, and to valuing my own decision making process more highly than someone else’s knee-jerk reaction to my choices. I am sharply aware of the luck and privilege that allows me to reflect on these things, and that gives me the freedom to make choices in my own best interest. Sometimes my choices are pretty out there, and sometimes they fall squarely inside the box… and that is perfectly okay by me.
**Let me just note here that I am not singing the praises of one company over another. I happen to have tried this product because of the above coincidences – there are many options out there, and I am sure they all have their pros and cons, and I am in no way affiliated with any of them.