I’m not sure I’m going to get this right. I’m not even sure I know what
I want to say here. But for someone who was born with both a heart for justice and a genetic inclination to opine and judge relentlessly – and seek to win every argument I’m in – I feel like I’ve reached a tipping point in my life. And it goes a little like this:
I don’t want to label.
I don’t want to categorize.
I’m not interested in what box I’m going to put you in. I humbly ask you to not put yourself into the box of a label.
You’re not defined by your labels. Know why? They don’t exist. They’re an illusion, see? A mirage. An external construct.
The only label you need is the one you were born with when you came into this world.
Why these thoughts? Why today, January 20, 2017? To quote Caleb Chapman of the band Colony House, “I’m not scared of fighting, I’m just a little bit over this conversation.”
I don’t think we don’t have time for this anymore. A label leads to a stereotype, leads to a pre-made judgment about identity, leads to a heightened sense of apprehension and wariness, leads to a conflict, leads to a fight, leads to all-out war.
See? Done. No more labels.
And once I’m done watching the labels fall off, what am I left with?
I’m left with your story. A complicated, nuanced, contradictory story.
I was talking to a colleague the other day about how teaching teenagers is so fascinating in this regard. One day you’re having a heart-to-heart conversation with a student from a broken home about their struggle to just roll out of bed that morning and get themselves breakfast and to the bus on time, let alone finish my thematic analysis essay. They look you in the eyes, tears smudging mascara, lip quivering, and you see how broken they are, and your heart breaks for them. They tell you they’re working hard to get caught up, but they could really use more time. So, you grant the extension and walk away from the conversation hopeful that something has been accomplished.
The next day, the same student snaps at a classmate, says something horribly inappropriate, and winds up in the office, and the paper never gets turned in.
So which was the Real Them?
You know the answer, I think. Because you’ve been looking in the mirror for a lifetime now, getting acquainted with a beautiful, label-free, contradictory, complicated person whom some days you can’t even begin to figure out.
I’m not sure really. But when it comes to living life in community with my friends and acquaintances, I know one thing.
I want my first instinct to be listening. Hearing. From every range of the spectrum that exists, I want you to tell me your story.
Where you’ve been. Where you hoped you’d be. Where you dream of going.
“The story of any one of us is the story of us all.” Frederick Buechner.
“We are all the same it seems/behind the eyes/Broken promises and dreams/in good disguise.” Amy Grant.
Again, Caleb Chapman. “Maybe the world isn’t crazy. Maybe it’s you and I.”
The danger of a label is the danger of a single story.
“To create a single story,” says Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her mesmerizing TED talk, “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” That’s because, she goes on, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
They make one story become the only story. Yikes. Guilty.
There is no single story. There is no person who’s just one thing. Not me, not you. So I’ll take my own oath today.
(Raising right hand).
I swear I will, to the best of my ability, take the time to listen, to set aside labels, to pay attention to the story behind the eyes. To both the person whose socio/political/ideological/geographical/religious/cultural perspectives are the same as mine, and to those who couldn’t seem more different than mine.
So help me God.
Will you join me? Will you listen? There’s a story there waiting to be heard.
And I want to hear it.