When did we start to label everyone? No, seriously, it seems like no matter where you turn, people have decided to categorize one another, dividing those around them into distinct and concrete categories… Liberal… Republican… Disadvantaged… Privileged… Successful… Failure… Gay… Straight… Of Color… Caucasian… Male… Female… Millennial… Empty Nester… Senior Citizen… West Coast… Southern… Easterner… Foreign… Talented… Challenged…. Spiritual… Religious… Atheist… and the list goes on.
When you think about it, most of us fit into multiple categories. Rarely does one solely describe us. And identifying with specific labels does not mean that we fulfill all of the attributes associated with that tag. I’d even go as far to say that we rarely fit the bill to most of these cookie cutter titles. Instead, we tend to be a blend, a mixture of multiple classifications, perhaps even adding our own twists to the definition.
While I can easily identify myself as a Caucasian straight female empty nester who is spiritual, I struggle with many of the other labels. Sure, I’m a registered Republican, but I have many liberal opinions, constantly widening my ever-evolving political views. And, while I’ve resided in Pennsylvania for most of my life, we now have an Oregon presence, so I’m conflicted with attaching myself to just one coast. Not everything is as it seems.
By now you may be asking where I am going with this. Recently, I’ve noted the overwhelming tendency of so many to instantly stick a label on others, especially to those who possess a belief system that differs from theirs. It hit me, loud and clearly, that we unfairly attach labels to those we’ve just met as well as to those we’ve known forever. Consciously or unconsciously, we observe an action, read a statement, or hear a comment made by another and then categorize him or her into a neat and tidy box, identifying the lid with large, magic marker letters, stacking it on the shelf with others in its category, where we think it belongs. But what if we’re wrong? What if we don’t see the whole picture, miss out on viewing the individual for who she or he is? What if we’ve made a mistake and mislabeled this human?
I believe this happens all of the time. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m guilty of it, too. Maybe in our attempt to make order out of our chaotic world, we align ourselves with those who think as we do, keep ourselves protected in environments so that we feel secure enough to express ourselves without the fear of offending. We’ve become used to categorizing one another, predetermining what we can and cannot discuss in their presence. Does our attempt to be politically correct, sensitive, and caring pigeon hole our conversations only to those whose response we can safely predict? If we assure ourselves that those around us feel as we do, can we then better share our truths? But here’s the big question, the one I’m most concerned about… if we can’t discuss our differences with our friends, with those we love, how can we ever resolve conflicts with people who we do not know or with those we deem our enemies? If we’re incapable of having these discussions in a safe environment, how can we ever hope to resolve the more difficult situations?
When did we start creating an antiseptic, sterile atmosphere where everything exists in shades of grey? I miss the passionate purples, cozy yellows, exuberant oranges, and crazy hot reds. Maybe the goal is not to confine ourselves to safe spaces where we only hear and see what appeals to us, nor expose our beliefs exclusively to others in alignment with our philosophies. What if we were to take risks and explore what it’s like to be the outlier… to have a diverse view from the rest, creating a stage for us to see the world through a different lens?
In order to grow and better understand both ourselves and others, we need to be open to hearing “alternative thoughts.” In no way does this require us to change our views or alter our perceptions. But if we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to hear, to listen to what others are saying, we’ll never know if there is another way. Maybe the other way isn’t their way, perhaps it’s a blend of multiple interpretations. Regardless, it all starts with talking and listening and sharing… with an open heart, allowing others to reveal their personal views without fear of being chastised or disrespected. We may not agree, but we may gain appreciation for the other’s perception. This reminds me of the time when I was upset because my husband didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about an issue he considered irrelevant. (Remember, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus…) Anyway, later that night he said to me, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset, but I do understand that you’re upset, that this means a lot to you.” Hearing him speak those words shifted my world that evening. He didn’t need to agree with me, see things from my angle. But, he recognized that whatever troubled me held extreme importance… and his understanding that shortened the distance… made us closer. We don’t have to always be on the same page, but we need to be willing to listen to one another, attempt to see “the why.”
Maybe instead of labeling those around us, we could all choose to lead with love, become open to people who are different from us. What if we attempted to listen to their viewpoint, ask questions, and then consider if there’s a better way? By opening the lines of communication, both speaking our truths and listening to others with open hearts, maybe we can slowly reduce the need for labels and accept others for who they are, not who we view them to be. Imagine the possibilities this might offer. And maybe in the process, if we feel free of being labeled, we’ll allow our selves to shine, without fear of judgment, categorization, or being placed on a shelf reserved for only those with a certain title.