My family moved St. Louis while I was a freshman in college. After graduation, I settled there (specifically in my parent’s basement) and discovered a quirky regional obsession with high schools. St. Louisans love to ask where you went to high school. Love it. Not having attended high school in St. Louis, I viewed this with amused detachment, especially when I simply answered with the name of my high school and watched as they tried, and failed, to place it (a little mean, I know). My assessment of this phenomenon was that it was an opportunity to see where your lives intersected, who you may have in common and, more cynically, where you rank in the socio-economic sense. In short, what’s your label?
There’s a natural desire to box people up into these neat little packages of who we are and what we represent. It’s never that simple, though. People are multi-faceted.
Case in point: I was schmoozing with a neighbor who mentioned that she had thought I was kind of crunchy. She’d seen me in the grocery store with my own bags, and around the neighborhood wearing my baby. But then she read the decidedly un-crunchy birth story of my daughter, and was confused. Was I crunchy or not? The answer is yes. And no.
- I bring reusable bags to the store with me whenever I can, but
- I drive an SUV (okay, a crossover).
- I use cloth diapers during the day, but
- I use disposable diapers at night.
- I plan on nursing for as long as I can, but
- I gladly get an epidural during labor.
- I’ve been known to co-sleep, but
- I really prefer my baby to sleep in a crib in her own room.
It led to a great discussion about how we are all hard to pin down. We are all yes and no.
In the religious world, there’s also a desire to pigeonhole. You wear a certain type of hair covering? You must be in this group. You watch movies on Netflix? You must be in that group.
I suppose there’s something comforting about being able to fit someone neatly into a stereotype. It makes things easier to process into good/bad, like/dislike, agree/disagree. It’s neat, tidy and there’s not a lot of cognitive dissonance. But guess what? It’s totally bunk. No one really fits into a box. And life is chock full of cognitive dissonance.
This attempt at categorization does everyone a disservice, because our whole is greater than the sum of our parts. We all have things we are working on, areas in which we would like to improve, places where we shine. But we are neither our best nor our worst parts. We are all of them. Whole.
Yes, this does complicate things. It’s much easier to be able to dismiss someone because they are “other” or “the enemy” or just “different.” But those people, the ones that we dismissed because they were filed into a box in our head, they also have valuable contributions. We very well may miss out because while we thought we knew who they were and what they stood for, we were wrong.
In the Ethics of the Fathers (4:1), Ben Zoma asks “who is wise?” The answer is “one who learns from all people.” The answer isn’t “one who learns how to label everyone and then only take information from the labels we like.” That would be way too easy. And when did real growth ever come from something easy?
So when I feel that urge to categorize someone, I’ll look outside of the box, and maybe there will be something unexpected there, just waiting to be appreciated.
When have you been surprised by someone acting differently than you expected? Is there a positive use for labels? I’d love to hear what you think!
Some other posts you may find interesting:
- Vetting for Personal Growth
- Guest Post: My kids are my mussar teachers
- Torah Tuesdays: It’s not a coincidence
- Redefining Homemaker
“label” image courtesy surfie_aussie_chick on Photobucket