“This is my container.” These were the opening words for an activity each year in the class I taught at the university.

The class was a training experience for undergraduates. Twenty students were selected each year to participate in a three-semester sequence of courses that took them from learning basic helping skills to providing valuable educational and mental health services to other students. A pivotal experience in their first semester came near the end, the Container Exercise.

The first part of the assignment was simple. “Find a container of any sort that conveys something about your public self, that part of you that is visible and known to others.” Students came up with everything from beat up backpacks to elegant jewelry boxes. That was the easy part.

The next part of the assignment was to select objects to put in the container. The objects were to convey something of their inner self, objects that symbolized their history, personality, aspirations, formative experiences, or anything else that was important to them but not necessarily known by others. Instructions were intentionally left open to each student’s interpretation. Photographs were prohibited. It was too easy to simply show pictures of loved ones and talk about them. Students had to come up with objects that represented the people, events, and lessons that had shaped them.

IMG_1670Then came the tough part. Over the course of two class periods, each person was given 10 minutes to show and talk about their container and its contents. The two instructors presented their containers the week before the rest of the class did. We were not going to ask the students to go where we as the professionals were not willing to go. This old tool bag was my container. I will say more about it and its contents later.

It’s one thing to select a container, load it with personally important objects, and to think about the meaning of each thing. It’s an entirely different experience to disclose all that to others. Of course, we each had the choice of what to show and how much or how little to share. Students often revealed later that they had objects in their container they chose not to show.

At the conclusion of our three semesters together, most students reported that those four hours of class time were the most pivotal, hard to describe, and impossible to forget.

I think Lent is about opening our containers to discover and ultimately reveal its contents. That’s where I’m going over the coming days.