Labels help us understand what’s before us. Without labels, grocery shopping would be impossible. How would we know which can contained the green beans, and which housed the creamed corn? How would we know which pair of jeans would offer the right fit, if a little white tag wasn’t nestled in the waistband? Imagine searching for the latest best-seller at the bookstore without the headers of “Biography”, “Cookbooks” and “New Fiction” pointing the way? Labels make life run more efficiently, save time and reduce confusion. And they can be hurtful and reductive.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Labels can be limiting. They can reduce a person or an experience to a bite-sized morsel of information, when, in reality, a platter wouldn’t hold the whole truth. For example, for centuries society has labelled humans with two genders: male and female. Yet I work daily with folks who are transitioning from one gender to another, or even discarding the notion of gender altogether. In our binary, either/or world, how do we acknowledge or understand someone who is rejecting labels that have categorized our “reality” for as long as we can remember? Similarly, clients diagnosed with conditions like bipolar disorder or depression can often be regarded as their “label” rather than their personhood. Certainly, certain characteristic are shared by all people with schizophrenia; otherwise, the diagnosis couldn’t be consistently applied. But each person’s experience, wisdom and consequences with an illness is unique and particular to him. Some labels conjur up positive feelings or associations, while others engender fear or rage. Labels provide a starting point for conversation, an entry into someone’s internal world. When it comes to people, labels don’t guarantee what’s inside. We enrich ourselves, and respect others, when we are willing to go beyond a label to truly understand and empathize with another’s human experience.