Psychology has proven that humans derive great pleasure from neatly fitting people and things inside boxes, where there is no overlap and all is mentally tidy. And, sometimes, people fit neatly inside those cozy cardboard boxes — they don’t dare peek over the edge, nor do they wonder what fortunes or conundrums their flimsy cardboard neighbors hold.
But often, a puzzling individual comes along that leaps from one box to another, before abandoning the prospect of being boxed up at all. I’m one of these puzzling individuals, whose foundation seems to be built on a precarious stack of juxtapositions.
I am a square peg.
I’m a devout Catholic from a well-known Polish Catholic family from Central Arkansas. As such, I am also traditionally conservative. This isn’t apparent at first glance, however, given my non-traditional short hair, a litany of tattoos and piercings and a host of other lifestyle choices, much to my parents’ chagrin. Additionally, while my conservative values and religious upbringing allow me to march in favor of the traditional rights and moral stances that I hold, many folks are surprised to learn that I lobby in favor of LGBTQ+ rights and that I’m a huge environmentalist.
For many, these ideas all seem opposed to each other; they don’t fit neatly in the same box. For me, though, as a conservative and a Catholic, all of these issues help me not only to care for God’s creation but to ensure a greater quality of life for those around me and in my community.
Nat Eliason wrote about how, when we identify with a word or phrase or tribe, we tend to forget the important stances and beliefs that make a group unique, because we’re all determined to carry the label and become one with the fold. When the importance of our differences becomes murky, we tend to become hostile with one another out of fear or ignorance, if not both.
Studies show that America is just as polarized today, if not moreso, than when Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier 50 years ago. Whether the tensions are racial, gendered or political, it has become impossible to separate a person’s identities — or their “box,” if you will — from who they are as a person. The boxes we have crammed people into begin to define them for us, and worse, to determine whether or not that person is worth our time.
I’ve seen it firsthand. I’m just conservative enough to be deemed a “bigot” by liberal audiences, but just liberal enough to be labeled a “RINO lunatic” by conservative audiences. All people in all positions have been tricked into thinking that they must be hostile to the unfamiliar, to other tribes. We seek to elevate ourselves above people who don’t think like us.
I’ve watched families explode into arguments and subsequent long periods of silence about whether or not the president’s stances (any president or stance, for that matter) are good, about whether or not a meme is offensive, about which words are good and which are bad. We label the whole of politics as the bad guy but don’t do much in the way of fixing it.
For many years, and to some extent still maybe even now, I’d always wanted to run for office. Since I was 10 years old, I wanted to be like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In my youthful naivete, I wanted to stand up against corruption and riches and defend those things that I held dear. But as our political system becomes increasingly extremist, and as I become increasingly moderate, I tend to think that I’m not cut out for politics.
This quandary reminds me of a conversation between Gene and Finny from the John Knowles coming-of-age novel A Separate Piece. Finny, a friendly, charismatic extrovert, wants to go to war and serve his country. However, his more realistic friend, Gene, explains that Finny would be bad at war, with or without a broken leg.
When talking about what Finny would do on the frontlines when confronted by enemy troops, Gene says, “You’d get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you’d lend them one of yours… You’d get things so scrambled up, nobody would know who to fight any more. You’d make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.”
I often feel that I would cause even more confusion as an elected official living outside of my boxes than I do as a civilian right now.
Our current political tensions aren’t the problem — they’re a symptom of the whole. We are a nation of people who acknowledge that we are diverse in everything but thought — we refuse to be wrong. As a result, our relationships tend to suffer.
As I get older, I come to terms with the fact that some things aren’t mine to save.
Sometimes, to figure out where I’m going, I have to remember the most important parts about who I am and where I’ve been. I’m Katie Zakrzewski. I have an affinity for animals and pierogies, and I own every book that my friends express interest in reading. I love dill pickles and pecans, because they remind me of home. I always say “please” and “thank you,” and I hold open the door for the next person in line. I love my family, my city and the folks around me. These things transcend boxes.
Maybe, if we all remember where we’ve been, we’ll get a better idea of where we’re going. Then, we can help other folks reach their destinations too. But most importantly, I hope that we learn to leave the dingy cardboard boxes behind.
Katie Zakrzewski is the associate editor for AY Media Group and its resident square peg. A proud native of North Little Rock’s Baring Cross neighborhood, Katie is a graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.