© Heba Malaeb
2012-2019

The Tissue Box

It became a reality quite early for me that life requires more effort than it’s worth; on most days, I firmly believe the world is the worst place to be. I don’t know if this was caused by my early exposure to the detachedness with which survivors of immense trauma must go on living — my parents lived through a war so awful it was either a) never spoken of, b) only joked about, or c) casually mentioned in passing, no matter how disturbing the content. And I don’t know if it’s a simple chemical imbalance in my brain, made all the more probable by my mother’s long history of living with depression. But what I do know is that my slow creep into each day is a decision, and one I have come to recognize as originating from within myself.

Winter is a season that either compounds my depression or sates my appetite for melancholia by matching my mood. One morning last winter, I woke up and went through the daily motions once more — read the news; shower; dress; carefully compound the day’s paraphernalia into a backpack — and walked out to a day that did nothing to help ward off the thought that had by now taken on a quotidian coloring in my life: “Ugh, I wish I were dead.” On that morning, however, this familiar thought manifested differently, no doubt influenced by the depressing world news I had ingested a few minutes prior. The thought was, “I wish the meteor would hit already. This world is so awful. Senseless human suffering is interminable and there is nothing I can do to help make it stop but to wish for our collective decimation.”

And then something peculiar happened. “No!” my brain said. What was stranger than its objection was that it did it nonverbally: the image of, of all things, a tissue box flashed in my mind’s eye, and it said to me, “Heba, all the indirect unravelings, the horrifying twists and turns in humanity’s history, culminated in the designing of the tissue box. It’s a box, it holds tissues, and the tissues are interlayered in such a way that when you remove one tissue, another pops up to replace it.” The absurdity of this object was suddenly inexhaustible to my mind. Instantly, I saw it deconstructed: the flat pattern of the die-cut cardstock; the plastic piece with the slit in the middle that miraculously keeps the tissue upright; the tissues, accordioning out from a stack into a long stream of material. In the next moment, I saw it assembled, and doing what it does best: dispensing tissues in its special, ever-giving way — one after the other — fwp, fwp, fwp, hilarious.

I decided the meteor could wait a few days; decided that humans are such a ridiculous and mysterious species that we have a duty to stay around and make more silly, funny, perfectly practical things like the tissue box. In that moment, the redemptive power of the idea of the tissue box became one of the tools that now help me combat my intrusive fantasies of non-existence — if not eliciting a giggle, the thought of the tissue box at least reminds me that I have found hope in the past, and so perhaps will find it in the future, no matter how alienating and painful the world might be.

And the world doesn’t often feel less alienating, nor less painful. On an almost daily basis, I confront the feeling that I am doomed to this life, and with it, the environment of objects we inhabit; I am doomed to a life of chair, coffee cup sleeve, subway pole. We were not meant to hold onto subway poles; and yet daily, duly, dutifully, we do. We accept the objects around us, objects we have inherited, much like we accept the painful histories still lingering around us — histories we have also inherited. Our acquiescent belief in objects trains us not to prod too hard at our surrounding contexts. If you spent your energy questioning, examining, emotionally investing in or divesting from every object, you would go mad. Confronting histories of violence, trauma, and collective suffering is an activity that is also maddening. Perhaps this is why I became an object designer. Perhaps I was looking for a sense of agency in a world where objects are an indisputable fact, much like war and suffering are, we are told, an indisputable fact.

Tissue boxes, like allusions to war, are quintessential to the experience of growing up Lebanese. You can’t enter a living room in Lebanon and not find a tissue box somewhere in your immediate vicinity; I remember noting this as a stark difference from my experience in America, where my friends just aren’t as tissue-reliant or tissue-aware as me (I will always have a few extra napkins stashed somewhere on my person, just in case). And yet my daily experience of tissues and tissue boxes doesn’t bring me comfort like the quirky character I have built in my head, a tissue box emblematic of mankind’s infinite capacity for absurdity (both benign and sinister). Through my appreciation of this emblem, I simultaneously celebrate the human mind’s ability to find fascination, not to mention an appetite for life, in the strangest of places.

It’s not lost on me that the tissue box that helps my meteor-controlling mind spare humanity its ultimate destruction is merely the idea of a tissue box; the platonic ideal of the object. The tissue box that keeps me grounded exists only in my mind. And in my mind, I mostly envision the act of pulling the tissue out, this extracted tissue immediately compensated for by its consecutive sister. It’s a mechanism wherein nothing changes too visibly. The only variance that occurs is in the fullness level of the box, and that can only be detected if you pick the box up, or run out of tissues; i.e., either with great intention, or by letting “nature” (i.e., the order of things) run its course.

For me, every day falls into one of these two categories of interaction. The first is an active, intentional picking-up of the box; a claiming of my life as my own. The second is a passive observance of a box I intellectually understand is constantly evolving, and yet in which visibly, no progress seems to be made; a life where I am stuck in the same spot. But so long as the tissue box is there, the future always remains an option, and, more importantly, a choice. Sometimes, this reminder is sufficient for getting me out the door and into the world of people and objects, carrying with me the always-lurking hope that meaning might be found in either.

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