A few weeks ago I was having lunch at a civic leaders forum, half-listening to the conversation around the table, when I heard someone say, “The kid is six years old, and he earned $7 million last year.” That made my ears perk up.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“You know, Ryan,” the speaker answered. I did not know, but I assumed Ryan must be a child actor of some sort, 2019’s Shirley Temple or Macaulay Culkin. It turns out my assumption was incorrect, and the conversation became one of the weirder ones I’ve had in a while. Ryan does have his own show, but it’s a YouTube internet series. And it’s not a sitcom, or even series of music videos. No, the show “Ryan’s World” is simply Ryan, the six-year-old kid, opening boxes on camera to reveal hidden toys.
It turns out Ryan is not alone. For the past several years, while I’ve been blithely visiting YouTube to watch country music videos and thirty-year-old clips of Saturday Night Live, other people have been getting online to watch people open boxes, all sorts of boxes, which contain all sorts of things: toys, electronic gadgets, shoes, live reptiles. CNN reports that “Since 2010, the number of YouTube clips with ‘unboxing’ in the headline has increased 871%. Last year alone, 2,370 days, or 6.5 years, worth of unboxing footage was uploaded to the site.”[i]
I suspect that some of you still aren’t following what I’m talking about. After that lunchtime conversation during which I was introduced to the world of unboxing, I still didn’t comprehend it, either. So, let me say it again, in simplest terms: YouTube, by far the internet’s largest video streaming website, has an entire category of videos which consist of nothing other than people on camera opening boxes to see what’s inside. And hundreds of thousands of people spend hours online everyday doing nothing other than watching these videos, doing nothing other than watching other people open boxes.
Even more bizarrely, the craze surrounding unboxing videos has turned into an industry. Toy manufacturers have begun creating new toys in inventive boxes designed to be opened on YouTube unboxing channels.[ii] The industry is leaning into the phenomenon. And the video makers are cleaning up. It turns out six-year-old Ryan didn’t earn $7 million last year. He made $11 million. [iii]
What the heck is going on? I wish I could now tell you that this is all a prank, but Easter fell on April Fool’s Day last year, not this year. The unboxing craze is real. My next thought was that it must be some sort of aberrant fetish, so I got on YouTube and checked the videos out for myself.
I watched one episode of Ryan’s World, in which the little boy’s real life mom wakes Ryan up to the surprise of a giant, papier-mache egg sitting in the middle of his room. Ryan excitedly tears open the egg to find a cache of toys from the Pixar “Cars” movie franchise. Ryan spends the next ten minutes playing with the toys, but for the viewer the novelty wears off within a minute or two, and there is an admittedly almost hypnotic impulse to click on the next video and watch Ryan open a new box.
I also watched a video posted by a twenty-something YouTube phenom who goes by the moniker SSSniperWolf. In the video, SSSniperWolf purchases for $5,000 what is advertised on eBay as a “mystery box.” That’s right. She spends $5,000 for the experience of opening a plain cardboard box with unknown contents. The box arrives, and SSSniperWolf opens it on camera only to find a disappointing array of clothing, pet toys, and junk exercise equipment. As she peruses the box’s contents in disappointment, SSSniperWokf asks into the camera, “Am I missing something? Is there…a hint in this? No, there’s no hint. There’s… nothing, no secret message. There’s just misery and deceit.”[iv]
And there it is, the key to deciphering the unboxing phenomenon. It is, I’ve come to believe, a digital metaphor and bellwether for the deep alienation of our culture. We are all seeking something, but we don’t know what. We crave deep and abiding meaning—meaning that will give a life structure, and purpose, and a horizon toward which to live—but we don’t know where to find it. We’re not even equipped to go on the search for it. So we settle for the shallowest possible substitute. Hundreds of thousands of people now go online to watch other people open up mysterious boxes, wondering what they’ll find; perhaps dimly hoping that it will be something that endures, that fits the shape of the hole in our psyches and souls. But we know, deep down, that the novelty will wear off quickly and we’ll move on to the next thing, that all such searches will end with SSSniperWolf’s dejection. Like her, we will end up saying in exasperation, “Am I missing something? Is there a hint in this? No, there’s no hint. There’s nothing, no secret message. There’s just misery and deceit.”
On the first day of the week, the women were just as desperate. They and the disciples had searched for meaning in all sorts of packages, most recently in the ministry and message of Jesus of Nazareth. But like everything that had come before Jesus, following him had led to disappointment and emptiness. He was dead, and there was nothing left to do. Nothing left, that is, except to do what good people do even in their despair and tend to the body of the teacher who’d let them down.
The women go to the tomb—its own kind of opaque box—and when it is opened, their dejection is heightened. The box is empty. Not even the remnant of Jesus remains, not even the body that can remind them one last time of the promise in which they briefly held all their hopes. One cannot almost hear Mary Magdalene whisper to the others, “Is there no hint in this? No, there is nothing, no secret message. There is just misery and deceit.”
But just as hope dies, the world changes. Suddenly, the mystery box is not empty but filled to overflowing. Forget subtle hints; the women are surrounded by dazzling light and two messengers with a clarion call. “Jesus is not dead,” they say. “Jesus is resurrected! Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
And we should ask, on this Easter morning, why do we? Why do we seek our meaning, the structure of our lives, the horizon of our hope in dead things, in things destined to pass away? Whatever avenue, whatever door, whatever box we may open—no matter how much it costs us—so long as we seek ourselves in the finite and the failing we will, eventually, find ourselves mired in misery. Our alienation from this world is because we seek to find our deepest meaning things that are meaningless.
But it is Easter Day, and again the God of grace and glory reminds us that the superficial novelties and distractions we pursue are the illusion, not the reality. The reality is that the love and power of God will not be boxed in, even by death. Jesus is the embodiment of that love and power, and Jesus is alive. That is the great mystery! The love and power of him is risen and awake, even here. That is no idle tale. If we, like the women at the tomb, will go forth with that living love in our psyches and souls—if we will tell the others what we have come to know—then we will experience resurrection. The old ways of living, the old places and things in which we’ve furtively sought meaning, will die, but we will not. We will live newly in the God of love—with meaning, purpose, structure, and a horizon of hope—and our joy will be complete.