Mandatory Labeling


 

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“Mom, what is wonder?” my daughter asks one morning, jumping off of the song lyrics playing on our way to school.

I’m distracted. Traffic is bad, we’re running late. I’ve only drank half of my cup of coffee.

Wonder. 

I start tossing words around to craft a definition within the reach of her ever concrete four-year-old mind.

“Wonder is when you’re excited and curious and nervous and happy all at the same time…sort of…”

I wanted to say, You, child, you are wonder. She peppers our days with questions:

How does the electricity work?
Why do our ears make earwax?

Where do we go when we die?
What does God look like?
What does ‘reality’ mean?

And for every time I get annoyed at yet another question, I try to allow her questions to instruct me, to remind me how extraordinary the world is.

Electricity and earwax and other people in other places.
Magic is everywhere.  

Wonder.

She wholly embodies a word she doesn’t even understand.

***

We are people who live by the label. Ever concerned about efficiency and productivity, labels help us make the most of each moment and interaction.

We label packages to show what’s inside, how it works, how it could hurt us, where it came from and how to dispose of it.

We label people by their gender, class, ethnicity, political affiliation, job status, and education level for many of the same reasons: how do you work? How could you hurt me? Where did you come from? Are you worth my time?

It’s as if all of life were a cosmic high school cafeteria. We need to know who sits where, which people belong at which table and who we need to exclude to keep those sitting with us safe.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a huge crowd in this iconic message known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Toward the end of this message, Jesus instructs the crowd:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?”
(Matthew 7:1-4)

Jesus says we are judged by the same measure we judge others by, which may have less to do with how God views us and more to do with how we view ourselves. I believe God is far more benevolent and gracious and loving than our brains can begin to comprehend, and that God’s nature is not so easily influenced to be shifted by whether or not I think kind things of my neighbors and friends. Rather, when I look on others with harshness or condemnation I often find myself using those lenses to examine my own life as well. On another occasion Jesus puts it this way: “The inner self overflows with words that are spoken” (Luke 6:45).

When we judge we take matters of value and dignity into our own hands – both the dignity or others and of ourselves. For some this judgement is a generous one:  “worthy” or “valuable” or “beautiful” or “good. “  For others, our judgements are miserly and rooted in fear and exclusion: “broken”  or “weird”  or “toxic” or “false.” 

Life is a series of conflicts (both internal and external), and what determines success is not your ability to live in a way that is free of conflict (because that’s impossible) but that you live in such a way the conflicts are healthy and ultimately beneficial.  Often what happens when we’re at odds with ourselves or with another is we dismiss that which we do not like or agree with as invalid, and try to “kill off” the viewpoint or behavior. This style of judgement is unproductive at best, and damaging at worst.

Labels and judgements are helpful, and necessary at times, but labels and judgements also fall terribly short.

It’s like when you meet someone for the first time, and you don’t know anything about them but there’s this thing that radiates off of them.  It’s almost as though they were a fish swimming in the water of that thing, inescapably bound to that reality in such a way that the thing is true of them regardless of their station in life or career path.

That thing, that essence defies the labels of society – and it is also more true than the label.

Perhaps this is why Jesus warned us against judging and labeling. There are things about all of us that transcend and defy and run deeper than the labels we thrust on one another or that we hide behind. The labels can help us organize ourselves and our thoughts, but the labels can also blind and limit us if we ascribe ultimate truth to them.

There are things that are true about ourselves (and about everyone else) that are beyond what we can think of or label. Like my daughter – who is “wonder” but doesn’t understand what that word means.  Maybe this is another way in which humans are imprinted with the Image of God, we are what we are – but we’re more than those things as well.

The more I let my snap judgements and water-resistant, dishwasher safe labels fade away, the more I’m learning to see that while – yes – we all are those things we are known for we also exist beyond the boxes. In fact, the best parts often lie outside the boxes – and that’s okay.

I’ve spent so much of my life bemoaning the fact that I don’t fit the boxes super well, but the truth is none of us do. We’re all beyond and deeper and wider and more true than even the most meticulously crafted label. I can tell my daughter she is a child of wonder till I’m blue in the face, but the words will never be as true as she is. Likewise, whatever label I’ve chosen for myself or whatever label has been cast upon me; whatever judgements you pass on yourself and whatever judgements others heap upon you – they will never be as true as you are. 

Live today aware of both the box you built from the pieces you were handed, and equally aware that there is so much more that will never be contained by the box…and that both are good and both belong.

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