Brad Cavanagh

Brad Cavanagh


One thing I learned growing up is things are the way they are. It isn’t worth yours or anyone else’s time to try to change that. There is a certain way you act, a certain way you speak, and certain expectations you should have of everyone you meet.

Most of us live in the box. The box is what we know. It brings order from chaos, safety from danger, familiarity to combat the unknown. It is where we belong.

I recently applied for an award that would help me complete my first novel. I didn’t get it. Among the several reasons given by the committee for denying my application, one sticks out. They said they “question the ambitious nature of the project.”

I know exactly what they mean. My idea is too far out of the box. The moment I read that line, I realized just how miserable I have been in the box. It’s stifling. It’s boring. It’s loud. It’s crowded. It is devoid of new ideas.

Photograph via Joe Jansen

At the same time, it’s comfortable. As a middle-aged, upper-middle class white guy, I fit perfectly in here. If I play by the rules and follow the pack, I will live and die comfortably. I won’t ruffle any feathers or rock any boats. Everyone will comment about how well I have lived my life.

For most people, I can see how this is a perfectly acceptable situation. After all, it pushes against our human nature to seek out discomfort. If the box is working for us, why climb out?

That is exactly the point that makes me so uncomfortable about the box. We fail to see when it is not working. We think everything is just fine and blind ourselves to the ways the box is horribly broken.

We hold on to the way things have always been for far too long, hoping against logic that things will stay just as they are “supposed to be”.

When we do sense that something is wrong, our first reaction is actually to retreat further into the box. We search for the path that will keep us moving in the direction we thought we were supposed to be going. Surely, we just need to work harder at our jobs, pray harder…do what we have been told. We have to trust the box.

The thing is, I’m just not buying it anymore. As the years have passed, I have spent more and more time looking outside of these comfortable confines for better answers. Inside the box, we treat societal challenges as perpetual neighbors. We will always have poverty, always have war, always have those who receive a top-rate education and those who don’t. It is simply the way things are.

Photograph via Paul Gilmore

Inside the box, this line of thinking is perfectly reasonable. Outside of the box, it is completely ridiculous. Outside of the box, we can separate ourselves from the crowds and the noise that keep us from envisioning what is possible. We can see what could be. We don’t just see problems, we see solutions.

What would the world be like if more of us spent time climbing those walls and freeing ourselves from what is? Could we find new ways forward? Could we change our world for the better? I think we absolutely would.

As this New Year begins, I know exactly where I plan to stand, and I’m taking my ambitious projects with me.

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More about Brad Cavanagh: I am a writer living in Dubuque, Iowa. At any given point in any day, you will find me thinking about how we might improve this world of ours. Some people might find that horribly depressing, but I don’t. I find it invigorating. I imagine all of the ways we could be better to each other, and all of the ways we could solve the problems we have created.

The Realist Idealist is my journey toward finding solutions. It is my way of discovering and sharing what could be. I am also completing my first novel, Topos, exploring the origins of and solutions to poverty.