You may have heard the phrase ‘the joy of the unopened box’ and understood it immediately or wondered what it meant. Or perhaps you’ve never heard it before now. In any case the concept is a subtle one and certainly worth pausing to understand, for in understanding this idea, you will learn how to eke out a little more pleasure from the good things that come your way, and more importantly, you will learn how to spare others from unnecessary anxiety.
For ‘the joy of the unopened box’ has a companion which is the ‘fear of the unopened box’, and it is darker side of things which cause people to unwittingly torture those around them with anxiety and fear.
First, let me replace the cryptic phrase ‘the joy of the unopened box’ with a maxim, which is: “If you give a person a space, that person will fill it with hope or fear.” This is, I think, easier to comprehend and more accurate.
This notion is simple to demonstrate by way of an example, if you are given a closed box with the suggesting that there is something within the box that you will like, then, for a moment, your imagination will bring to you all of the things that you could reasonably hope of that might fit in the box. If you receive a box from your child, you might imagine that he or she has made something for you. If it comes from your spouse, you might imagine something that he or she knew you wanted. If it came from someone you don’t know, you might imagine all sorts of wild possibilities. But it doesn’t have to be a box, it could be an envelope. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a physical object at all. You could be in a conversation and a person could tell you that he has good news for you as he pauses for a moment (perhaps to take a phone call) there is a moment, and in that moment, you will begin to imagine all of the possible things that you hope he might say next.
That is the joy of the unopened box. It is the joy that comes from letting your imagination entertain you with all of the hopes that you have.
Of course, there is another side to it. There is also ‘the fear of the unopened box’. If you are handed a box or an envelope and there is reason to think that the contents will be something that you will dislike, your imagination will fill that space with all of the things that you fear that could fit in such a space. Again, it need not be physical at all, if someone says to you ‘I’m sorry, but… ‘ and pauses, your imagination will fill that space with all the things that you fear the person will say next. (This is why telling someone ‘we need to talk’ without letting the person know that it isn’t bad can throw the person into such a panic)
This is why it is so important to understand this concept and to be careful of the spaces that you present people with. It could be at work and you have an important announcement to make at a later time. If the people that work for you trust you, they may imagine all of the good things that you might be going to tell them. But if there is any distrust, then they may ruminate as worry as their imaginations fill the space that you have given them with all the things they fear that you might tell them.
Parents (and other people in authority) have used this technique to not tell someone what his punishment will be as a means of letting the person’s own imagination torture them with all of the things they fear might happen to them. And when used sparingly, it can be quite effective.
So, remember that while it is a nice and joyful thing to give a person a space to fill hope (assuming that it isn’t a trick), it is cruel to give a person a space to fill with fear.
“If you give a person a space, that person will fill it with hope or fear.”