There are some hilarious memes on the internet of cats shoving their bodies into spaces they don't belong in; boxes, vases, fish tanks, sinks, you name it: if they fit in it, they will sit in it. If you don't know what I'm talking about I wholeheartedly encourage you to google "if I fits I sits" and look through the images. You'll be laughing until your sides hurt.
These cats in the images have the idea that they can fit into spaces and, regardless of what we may think of whether they could possibly fit or not, they squeeze themselves into the boxes (or whatever else) with varying degrees of success. As human beings, our brains are wired to do the same thing; our brains put all sorts of things into boxes with varying degrees of success. Some of the things fit tidily into the boxes and other things that we believe should fit in the boxes are left spilling over the sides.
Our subconscious mind is constantly arranging and grouping things in a way that helps us to understand and interact with the world around us. An example that I gave to our religion classes this week was that my brain sorts the youth in our school into the category of "students", the adults I work with into the category of "coworkers", and the parents I talk to into the category of "parents"; these subconscious categories affect the way I interact with all of these people. These subconscious categories affect my expectations for how these people will interact with me as well; I would, for example, expect that a middle school student will interact differently with me than Michael Manahan, someone I have worked with for four years who has a daughter in the 6th grade class.
The way our brain classifies things can really help us, imagine if we had to re-learn that hot food burns our mouth for every different type of food. It's great that after having an experience where we burn the roof of our mouths, our brain remembers this for all types of food because we have a "food" box in our brains. But the way our brain classifies things can also really limit us, because people, in particular, have a habit of not fitting into boxes the way they ought to. We make a lot of generalizations about people (often without conscious effort) and this can hamper the relationship that we could have with them. When we don't make the conscious effort to recognize that people are more than the box we have put them in, we risk not fully seeing for who they are.
Catholic Social teaching on life and the dignity of each person affirms and upholds this idea. The church teaches that human life is sacred, that each person is created in the image and likeness of God, and that we are all precious in our uniqueness. When we take time to know someone better we are recognizing who they are and we are living out our calling to be more like Jesus who, throughout scripture and history, loves people because He sees them for who they truly are.
On the first day, I gave the students one minute and asked them to write down every word they could think of to describe God. Then, as their homework this week, I asked all of the students to go home and ask their parents for one word that they would use to describe God. You wouldn't believe the variety of words they brought back in response; in every class there were words that I hadn't heard in the other classes used to describe who God is. In every class, I covered the whiteboard with different words; some of which were similar but many were quite different. Then I asked the question: "Does this mean that some of the words are wrong?"
The answer, as most of the students said, was no. Because, just like the people around us don't fit into tidy boxes, neither does God. God is so much bigger than our minds can possibly comprehend. People could devote their entire lives to learning about one facet of God and still not uncover the entirety of who He is even in that single facet.
The older I get and the more I learn, the less I feel I know. Not because I doubt the things I've learned but because as I continue to expand my knowledge and understanding, I realize how much I do not know or understand. It's one of the things that I love about teaching religion and about teaching kids about who God is- I get to learn all of the time, too. Because kids will ask me questions that I've never thought to ask, or they'll have an insight about God or scripture that I've never thought of, or they'll conceptualize things in a way that I never have. And it's fun. It's fun to learn new things, make new connections, and adjust the way that I've subconsciously put God in a box.
God reveals Himself to (and in) all of us in different ways and it's only in learning to recognize other people for their gifts and strengths that we can grasp a fuller picture of who God is.
It is my prayer as we go through this year that we learn to recognize God in one another and we continue to grow in our ability to treat others with dignity and see them (and ourselves) as the image of God that we were created to be.
Religion Teacher at
Our Lady of Peace Catholic School