The Messy Digestion of Labels

A few weeks ago at camp, I had a great discussion with my co-counsellor about words and how we identify ourselves by them. We were talking about the word ‘Christian’ and my friend was saying how words and labels, while necessary in some respect, are also completely limiting. We were talking about how when I define myself by any given title, what I think that title represents, might be completely different than the person that I am speaking with. For example, someone might call themselves a “Christian” because they feel like they have been “saved” and have “accepted Jesus into their hearts”. This is incredibly problematic because it assumes that those around us understand that the label (“Christian”) is based on the same factors as we assume it is. It becomes even more complicated when we start to question the assumptions behind the labels as well. What does it mean to be “saved” etc… Another person might assume that a Christian is someone who follows that wayof Jesus…well, what is the way of Jesus, etc.

Secondly, labels put people in boxes. Recently, a person I was working with constantly brought up the fact that she was a teacher. “I am a teacher”, she’d say. I think she probably did this to give her insights and opinions some more weight and value- despite the fact that this wasn’t necessary. It was weird to me that she kept reminding us of what she did- because we would have valued her opinion if she was an accountant or a cashier as well. It seemed silly that she kept referring to herself this way because really, she is a lot more than a teacher- she’s a person. And people are complex creatures that cannot be defined by how they pay their bills or what they have been trained to do.

The thing about labels is that sometimes they say more about what you AREN’T than what you are. Not to be too relativist, but it’s important to realize, like I said above, that it is very rare that those around us even share common definitions of the words and titles that we use in everyday conversation. An easy way to demonstrate this is to ask a random group of people what the word environmentalist, feminist, activist, green, vegetarian, religious, radical, revolutionary or peacemaker means to them. I guarantee you that everyone will say something slightly different.

I am not exactly sure where I am going with all of this. I’m not trying to argue that we need to drop labels all together- maybe we need ways to catagorize people and thoughts to make sense of the world around us. However, maybe the more we label, the more we actually misunderstand people…maybe the more we catagorize, the LESS we actually understand who a person is. I am realizing that even when I label myself something, the people around me are going to interpret what I call myself through their own lens, perspective and experiences.
It’s all very complicated.

I wonder what it would be like if the only label that I had for myself and those around me was “person” – or even better, “person worthy of love”…


And of course, as I have been thinking about how words can be very limiting and harmful to our understanding of ourselves and those around us, I have also been reminded about how words can also be beautiful and meaningful and can speak to us on a deep level.

I love the idea of the imagry of words. I heard a song recently, written by a girl I know that says, “open wide and digest deep.” I have never been told the thought process behind her lyrics, but I know that for me, those words have played on repeat in my head as I have been going about my life. And the idea of digesting love and knowledge and pain- has become very real and beautiful. Digest deep.

Likewise, on the painting that my friend painted for me (shown above), there is a line that says that there is a tree of life that is “planted firmly in the messy soils of love.” Ahhh, and I just love that idea- because I think about soil and how when you put your hands in the earth and dig, it’s dirty. But it is also so, so satisfying- and necessary for things to grow. The messy soils of love- just words, but somehow profound enough for them rumble through my head and give me a tangible picture of what love is made up of.

It’s late and I feel like I have made a poor connection between my two thoughts. Please excuse the rambling.

If you get nothing else from the time you’ve wasted reading this, know that you are a person worthy of love- and be conscious of the words around you that speak art and truth into your life.


3 thoughts on “The Messy Digestion of Labels

  1. it’s even more complicated when you know more than one language, and the word equivalents have different connotations – it has caused for many awkward conversations… haha

    i really like that painting, how big is it?

  2. Thanks Mikey,
    wow, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have to wade through the nuances of two languages!
    The painting is actually two canvases- maybe about 2 feet. It’s so beautiful. It’s incredible how amazing my friends are.

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