Too Many Labels

There’s one in each of my shirts. Everyone at work has one. There must be ten thousand at my grocery store, even on the fruit. Animals and humans have them; even rocks and trees. Everywhere I look, there they are.


What is it with human beings and labeling things? We use them to bestow honor on some people we admire; we use them to shame others that we don’t. When we use them as insults, condemnations, judgments, slurs, we reveal our hearts are just like monkeys at the zoo: flinging poo at whatever we disdain or fear. This shaming behavior is beneath the dignity of human beings.

I know not all labels are bad. Some of my labels are good:  dad, son, brother, friend, southpaw. These are not unique to me. I have other labels: alcoholic, divorcee, addict. These are not unique to me either. But they do not bring life. They can shame a person. Personally, these are markers of past seasons in my life but there was a time they caused great shame.

I can be hung up on the labels (mostly given to me by other people) or I can choose a different path: to make the best of what I have been given. I’ve been in recovery for several years, and I experienced the “spiritual awakening” the program speaks about. Some of the consequences of my past behaviors and choices remain but I am free; I am living instead of dying.

Truth: I can get bitter or I can get better. I can’t have both at the same time.

Somewhere along the way I realized that hurling negative labels at people only serves to dehumanize them. The old saying “sticks and stones…” is not accurate. Words can hurt. They can be used to shame others, make them defensive, provoke isolation.

I’m sure there are many great writings that speak to this; the ones that affected me the most are Donald Miller’s “Searching For God Knows What” and  C. S. Lewis’ “Weight of Glory”. You can find Mr. Lewis’ message here and elsewhere online. One paragraph of “Weight of Glory” encouraged a new perspective for me:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

This is my belief too: Every person will eternally exist in one form or another. But I hadn’t considered how I interact with them.

How am I to respond to that perspective: each human I encounter will exist forever? Who am I to decide another person is an imbecile or <insert-insult-here>? Whether the person just made a dangerous maneuver on the highway, or created reality TV, my response does not have to be condemnation.

Call me what you will; it may sting but it isn’t going to kill me. A label is just a label. It is not a definition of who I am or who I was created to be. A label doesn’t define who you were meant to be either. Only God can tell you that.

But we would do well to consider how we condemn others with words, and carelessly fling labels at them. On the surface it may seem only a slight insult but it is an attack on their identity. And it damages our hearts too: it desensitizes us to their humanity, their value, their worth, their immortality.

(I realize that real evil and terrorism and violence is taking place all over the world. I struggle to deal with those things with grace and mercy, and the people behind destructive actions are easy to hate. I am, after all, only a ragamuffin. Great minds of the nations of the world are also struggling with these issues. For today, I can focus on how I interact with the humans I encounter personally.)

In the words of recovery folks everywhere: take what you like and leave the rest.

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