Imagine you’re handed a precious elixir that requires immediate refrigeration. All you have is a used plastic supermarket container. You wash, rinse and wipe it dry before transferring the elixir. The next day you notice a leak from a pinprick in the bottom. Quickly, you tape it. Shortly thereafter, you observe that the amount of the elixir has slightly decreased. The taped container is not leaking anymore, but a hairline crack in the lid is contributing to evaporation. You pour the elixir into a sturdier plastic container, with a lid that snaps shut. Then you discover the plastic leaches. To avoid contamination, you transfer the elixir to a sterilized glass jar. Later, concerned that the jar might slip out of your hand, spilling the liquid and making a dangerous mess, you pour it into a child-proof, unbreakable canister. Perhaps eventually you’ll develop a container that is synergistic with its contents, like oak barrels are to wine, an intelligent marriage of materials, form and function. Maybe understanding one’s essence and finding the appropriate place to cherish and express it is the work of a lifetime.
While we don’t go around thinking of our lives as happening inside Tupperware, kegs or stainless steel thermoses, we are constantly creating containers for our energy or agreeing to use containers established by others. Some of these containers are actual structures like our homes, offices, stores and even automobiles. If we have the means and the drive, we can create our own from scratch or customize something that already exists. Other containers, like classes, performances, appointments, etc., while housed in a physical structure, are created in time, with a specified beginning and end. Arrive to the theater at the wrong moment or on the wrong day? You will miss the show you wanted to see. At the Zen monastery where I practice, latecomers are barred from the meditation hall. My observant Jewish relatives don’t tarnish the Sabbath by texting. Time boundaries create focus and intention, if not sanctity. We also expect correspondence between a container and its contents. How long would a theater stay in business if it sold tickets to a cheery musical but the curtain rose on a somber play? Ditto for a restaurant where the waiter explains that, well, half the items on the menu are no longer served. Would you fault a diner who chooses to leave and find another eatery?
There are also extremes. When passions run high, or when we put others on pedestals, we might privilege the content over the container. Suppose there is an opportunity so rare or inspiring, like the chance to dine with your favorite author, guru or actress, and you are so eager for this experience that you agree to relinquish any say about the container, about when and where this encounter will take place. You create enough space in your life so that, when the phone rings or the e-mail beeps, you’ll be available on a moment’s notice to meet the president, your favorite author, etc. If you were told that this person would appear sometime in the next three days, would you put things on hold? What about three weeks? Or three months? At what point do you decide that the container of your life is more important than the content you’ve deemed special? Or, we might sit at home, watching the clock while a beautiful dinner congeals, waiting for a lover to appear. We might, for a time, put up with a lot, believing that eventually we’ll get a lot.
Others privilege the container over the content. People who live in exquisite homes but exist in loveless or dreary marriages, prizing appearance over intimacy. Or folks who religiously stick to a routine and don’t allow deviations, becoming dry and brittle over time. In our celebrity culture, we often tacitly or implicitly accept that the famous or successful, have earned a right to either exalt their particular containers, or break what the rest of us consider a normal container. Many containers are constructed only of words, perhaps not even consciously. These are agreements (often implicit) we make with ourselves, families, friends, co-workers, fellow citizens. It’s only when someone shatters them do we start to explore what our unspoken beliefs are, and why we might have allowed some containers to exist or expand even if they were cracked and leaky, allowing the contents, our precious life force and momentum, to dissipate.
It’s taken me a long time to articulate that I value containers, whether they be agreements, schedules or physical spaces, just as much as the contents, if not a bit more. Too often I’ve found myself in situations with supposedly “great” content, like renting a beautiful art studio in a larger, neglected building, or falling for an attractive man who raises some red flags, and allow a fantasy to override my inner wisdom. Later I’d discover that the landlord or lover was either unable or unwilling to maintain or create the container. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. A few months ago, I decided to contact a master somatic therapist, recommended by two people who knew me in different contexts. I chose to overlook that getting in touch with this person had initially been difficult, e-mails and phone calls went unanswered for long periods. Ignoring an intuitive hit to move on, I told myself her skills would be worth the wait for an opening in her busy practice. Eventually, after participating in a public workshop she led that helped me better understand her offering, I did have a few private sessions. I benefited from the time spent, but confirming appointments involved reconciling disparities between conversations and e-mails, often at the last moment, adding to my stress. Not once did we start on time. Aware that scheduling was not her forte, she told me she was in the midst of setting up an online booking system that would be functional by a certain date. That date came and went, then she abandoned the project. On what would have been our fourth meeting, I arrived at what she referred to as “my designated time” but she did not appear. I left a voice message, and then I stood up and left. Later she apologized for, essentially, booking a conference call in my time slot and neglecting to notify me. She asked if I could come the next day. It was as if she had handed me a rare wine in a waxy, wrinkled Dixie cup with someone else’s lipstick on the rim. No! bellowed my gut and my head, in uncharacteristic unison. I wrote to her that I trusted her expertise but I needed to trust the container, too. Naming that was powerful, as if I had bent an oak stave with my bare hands.