There was a time that I studiously reviewed nutrition information for diet control. It was a lot of work, trying to achieve some balance, consistency between protein, calories from fat, carbs, and all the rest. It did, in fact, produce results – if I took it seriously. Then there were the labels on files, whether the card catalogs in the library of my youth, or the tabs on the decades of files I created during my career that went into drawers to be carefully preserved, then just as carefully shredded. Or the warning labels on weed killers and solvents, insect repellants and medicines, that protect us from misuse and harm. All these labels help us make good choices.
Then there are the labels that bring … other results.
In 2013, I stood in front of a high school audience. My nerves were convulsing, heart pounding, my uncertainty whether my words would have meaning for anyone there was only growing greater as the faces of teenage strangers stared up at me, older than most of their parents. I was trembling, and I probably gave one of the worst presentations of my life.
I held up a can with the famous Campbell’s logo of red and white, and asked if anyone knew what was in the can – and of course, a few voices spoke out – soup. But then I removed the label – one I had attached – and held it higher for a moment before I asked – now what is in the can? Is it the same as the label? How do you find out?
Living in a society requires us to use labels for ourselves, and for others. Some we get from the day we are born – gender, race. Some our families apply, as roles; others, we are given by our peers. They can lift us up and tear us down. They can change – but sometimes we absorb them, cling to them – they become our identity, who we see ourselves as “being”, which may not be anything close to what we try to present to those around us. We learn to pretend, to stay in our boxes, and – we learn that some labels are to be avoided at all costs. I am sure you have a list of your own, one you keep deep inside. Even “forgotten” – their power may resonate in our lives for decades.
I cried a lot as a young boy, in the mid 60’s; there were reasons. The pain was real, and I felt very alone. I remember very clearly once my mother calling me a “pansy”. That wounded me; she was a loving mother, but also a product of her time and era, and human. But it stuck with me, branding me as somehow “not what I was supposed to be”. I remember in 6th grade the other boys in my “mentally gifted minors” program (where girls were the majority) excluding me because they felt I didn’t belong with them. Of course that happens to most of us – but I took in that labeling deep into my soul. In a way, as I went through adolescence and then into college and career, I began to weave those labels into my being. They were labels that brought shame, that needed to stay hidden. Eventually, I was hidden away too – buried.
There were labels I tried to display for the groups that I wanted to “belong to”. Trying to live up to expectations of my family, school, church, classmates – carefully sewing those “labels” deeply into the fabric of the “clothing I wore” for others to see. I didn’t realize others felt the same way, excluded, unacceptable; I thought I was alone. And I learned to I use labels to blame, to exclude, to justify further retreat, burrowing deeper into the dark cave where I had made my hearts home.
It took decades, a lot of help, self-honesty and pain – but I found my way out of the cave. It was a long, hard climb. I perhaps in some ways am still leaving that cave behind – and big part of it was losing the labels. The labels others had attached to me, the ones I had clung to, and – the ones I slapped on others like bumper stickers. Losing them all – peeling them off, ripping them out. They stick deeply in our vision of ourselves and others – you have to keep on pulling away the scraps, the little pieces that cling – to clean away the grime.
Back in 2013, standing in front of a bunch of students as a fairly new members of the Gay Men’s chorus of LA, really not having a lot of friends even in the chorus because I lived 60 miles away – I felt pretty alone, still, on that stage. I had only been “out” for less than a year. But I told them – the best I could – that labels limit life. Not just labels that are given us, or we take on ourselves – but also the ones we put up to block others away, to keep them from hurting us. But – we don’t need to allow other’s labels stick to us, nor must we use labels on those near us. Unlike a can of soup or a chemical table – we are more than just a list of names, characteristics, measurements. No one is a “fixed value”, unchangeable; sometimes the journey of discovery is about letting ourselves come forth. And learning to let others reveal themselves outside the boxes and labels we use on them. Together, we become something different over time, through choice, and especially through our relationships with one another.
Today, our journey brings us to a place where things we took for granted seem uncertain. Perhaps this is an opportunity as well as a challenge. Every one of us has a universe of possibilities ahead. Every single one, even if we only have today to live. Letting go of the walls we put around ourselves – the limits we set by embracing some idea that we do not measure up, we are not good enough – so what? We are walking miracles. Your very existence today, the fact you are here, is a wondrous mystery, swimming with promise – perhaps buried under years of labels that you have lived with, but it is time to tear down. To toss away, not just for us – but for everyone in our life. Those around us we have boxed away with our judgments and set aside because they didn’t meet our standards, they don’t look the right way or vote the right way or believe the right way – those walls keep us from becoming what we can, together. When we stick those “unwanted cans” in the back of the cupboard – we all “go hungry”.
I doubt whether my little speech to those students registered, and my time with the Chorus was short – but it was a step in my becoming. We can work towards becoming more like the labels that we want to live up to. Yes, there are labels worth using, and worth keeping. Yet, perhaps it is worth taking some time to reconsider whether some of the labels we “wear” in our thinking – and those we have “stuck” to others in our lives – need to go. There are enough limits in life without them. If we can look beyond them, perhaps we can discover new flavors, new possibilities, and new life. Together.