I remember the first time I bought a Dymo. Remember those? It made great labels. I had one of those early ones before the electronic digitized screens and keyboard. On mine, the dial on the little “squirt-gun” shaped gizmo had to be rotated to the correct letter or number and then you squeezed the trigger and then the next, and the next, and the next. The backing peeled off and you put the label on the light switch, the cupboard, the toolbox, the storage container or whatever. It was addictive. Couldn’t quit labeling. Wasn’t going to stop until the roll was out!
Then labels moved from being nouns to verbs. Now we barely remember the organizational benefits of labeling everything. Labeling, as we know it now, is often hurtful, it’s sometimes dehumanizing and usually polarizing. We label the positions, philosophies, politics, and personalities of people. We like to organize people in to their proper “place” in life. We are more comfortable when we know where people “fit.” Cataloguing data is not all bad. It helps us to better understand its relationship to everything else around it. So we categorize to better understand things. In the best-case scenario, we label people like we do things. For the sake of understanding them. But not always.
Our love of labels has become very detrimental to our well-being as a nation. We live in a culture where we are hard-wired to fit people in to neat, perfect little boxes. We have left or right. Blue states or red states. Conservative or Liberal. Fit or fat. Black or white. Religious or non-religious. Smart or slow. Rich or poor. But rarely do any of us really love being squeezed into the pre-made boxes that have been provided for us. I bristle inside when anyone wants to put any of the above labels on my forehead. For example. Believe it or not, even as a pastor and chaplain, I hate being called religious. I would much rather talk about the finer nuances of my faith journey, my spiritual beliefs, and my relationship to God. I don’t want to be put in a box of being religious. That has plenty of negative connotations to me.
Here’s my point. We are human. We are complex beings with individual ideas, beliefs, preferences, and ideals. The day when society drops the labels and starts seeing people as unique individuals, will be the day when we will no longer be divided. In all reality, this is much easier said than done. But in the time being, the only label you should be given is your name (and maybe your rank or title in some organizations).
This is not a 21st century problem. They struggled with this in the 1st century. A casual reading of the scriptures written for the newly-formed Christian churches in the Middle East and Europe reveal that they had challenges caused by labeling others by their ethnicity, religious heritage, economic status and belief systems. When prominent Judeo-Christian leader and author, Apostle Paul, wrote to the church in Galatia, he reminded them, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28 MSG). Without getting into a detailed explanation of this scripture, the call was to focus on their one common link—their relationship to Jesus. The broader and practical application in America is to stop the labeling. Highlight the fact that we are all humans. We live on the same spinning globe. And, many of us reading this, happen to be located in the United States of America.
I mailed in my ballot this week. But I don’t intend to talk about my political affiliations and preferences on social media. In the tense culture we have right now, I would surely be categorized or pigeon-holed by someone somewhere as either a “bleeding heart” or a “raging conservative.” Can we adults try to set an example for our kids and refuse to assign names to others based on their skin tone, political leanings, or whatever? Just maybe we could reduce the “bullying” that is so common in school and on social media? That problem starts with labeling. And our kids learn it from us adults.
Names and labels have power. Take a look at the boxes you have ready for people—whether political, religious, lifestyle, skin color, driving style, gender, age, personality or because of their communication approach. This week, instead of automatically putting people into their box, see if you can deliberately refrain from making a default summary statement and boxing them in. Open your mind. See if it doesn’t open the boxes you have for others. Labels take on an “all-or-nothing” meaning. That brings more stress and tension in your life and in our world. Relax. Let’s enjoy life as God intended it to be.
QUESTION: What are the most helpful ways you have found to resist labeling others and pigeon-holing them? Please share in the comment section below. Thank you!