By JC Zahradnik
Is anyone else completely done with the overuse and over-creation of labels in society today? I’m not talking about the guy who got a label maker for Christmas and is now slapping labels on everything from the spices in the cupboard to the family cat. I’m talking about how quickly we want to throw everyone into some predetermined box and how some of us wear these labels so proudly.
Seriously, how have we become so obsessed with how we and others label us. We’ve got Christians, atheists, vegans, millennials, gay, straight, conservative, liberal, black, white, blue-collar, white-collar, open-minded, closed-minded, feminist, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and the list could go on and on.
What happened to us just being people? I think this just goes to show our innate need for relationships with other people. Our desire to belong. We long to find people like “us.” Think about it, how much of our actual time is spent with people “like” you and compare it to the amount of time you spend with people “not like” you. If you’re being honest, the overwhelming majority of time is spent with people “like” you. You share commonalities with these people. We like commonalities because it makes us warm and cozy. It makes us comfortable. When we are around people we don’t know it’s awkward because we don’t see many commonalities at the surface level. This makes us uncomfortable.
Think about what happens to food labels and containers when the latest “nutritional” craze hits? The marketing becomes geared towards those crazes. For instance, the latest buzzword in nutrition is gluten. Oh that evil little…huh, does anyone really know what gluten is (I know it’s not good for you if you have celiac disease)? Yet, everything is now labeled as gluten-free (I bet shopping for groceries has become fairly easy for people with celiac disease, finally). Even items that have always been gluten-free and have no chance of ever containing gluten are now labeled gluten-free. Why is this? We want to make it easy for people to make “informed” decisions (plus we want you to buy our product so we make more money). If I make it too hard for someone to know if my product contains gluten most people won’t take the time to find out and onto the next product they go. The one that looks like what they want. The one which has those big, bold, sexy “GLUTEN-FREE” letters.
Have we started doing the same thing with people? Have we started throwing all these labels on people and ourselves to help us know who we should like and who we should avoid? If you tell me I’m going to get stuck in a room with 100 people for the next 3 hours I’m not going to be happy. If you then tell me these people are 30-something white, conservative, blue-collar, Christian, males. I’m going to be a lot more comfortable. But if you tell me these 100 people are all of my closest family and friends I’m going to be pumped. Why is this? And don’t give me the cheap, uneducated, lazy answer of I’m somehow a combination of a bunch of words ending in -ist or -phobic. According to Psychology, my brain is hardwired to try to make sense of all the information it is constantly bombarded with (this is why we see animals and different things in the clouds). Well, how does our brain know how to make sense of new information? It uses previous information. Our brain needs to make sense of information so we can figure out how to get our needs met. If we are around people or in situations new to us, we aren’t certain how to act or interact (get our needs met) so we feel uncomfortable.
So in society’s greatness it’s decided to help us feel less uncomfortable (because we all know being uncomfortable is such a bad thing) by coming up with all of these new and flashy labels for everyone.
You know what the big problem with this is? We are trying to get rid of one of, if not, the most important variables in any good relationship, time. Stop and think about the best and strongest relationships you have. You’ll notice time is a key variable in all of them.
By trying to quickly skip over the fine-print we lose the ability to listen to a person’s story. Our story is the one thing that is ours and no one can take that away from us. Story is what connects us to each other in a deeper and stronger way than any label ever could. We’re drawn to any form of art that shares a deep story. I’m talking about a story that goes beyond the superficial. A story in which someone is welcoming us into their world, into the essence of who they are.
My wife and I were out on a date in downtown Wichita awhile ago. At the end of the night, we were walking back to our car and sitting on a park bench near our car was an old homeless man. We get to the car and my wife, who has the biggest, purest heart I know, says we need to go see if we can do anything for this man. This is not my comfort zone, but I nod to my wife and follow her over to talk to this man. We sit down and start talking and before you know it, Billy, is sharing his story with us. We learned of parts of his childhood and how in his 20’s he hitchhiked across most of the U.S. How he once lived in an old rattlesnake infested cabin and each night before he went in he prayed to his Savior, Jesus, to keep him safe. He beamed when reminiscing about the brick driveway he laid by hand for his wife. The part that shook me to the core was every time he talked about how good God has been to him. It was a beautiful story of highs and lows, the pain of choices regretted, the heartache of loss, but also of an indescribable joy and peace. I left changed and marked forever, by this little old man named Billy.
Slow down, remove the labels, and listen to the story.