Labels

I made a mistake this week.

I told a someone that I was Catholic. And that I was a deacon.

And that was all she needed to know.

What she said next made it clear that I hated women. That I was trying to take the world back to the Dark Ages. And that if I wasn’t personally sexually abusing children, then I was involved in covering it up.

Of course, none of that is true.

But for her, knowing that I was a Catholic, and a deacon, that was all she needed to know.

She had labeled me. With that label, she knew everything she needed to know about me. No further thought needed.

The thing is, she’s not unique.

Truth be told, her approach to me – learn enough about me to find out what label to apply, and then deal with me according to her assumptions about that label, with no need for further thought – that’s normal for us.

You have to admit, it does make everything a lot simpler. The problem is, that simplicity comes at a price.

Soren Kierkegaard put it this way, “when you label me, you negate me.”

The price of the simplicity gained by labeling? The humanity of the person getting the label.

Even so, labeling people is normal for us.

Because labeling is so well-engrained into our culture, whether it’s politics or public discourse, fake news or real news, entertainment or social media, it’s hard to avoid people who are using labels.

And way too easy to do it ourselves.

Look at your own social media accounts. Twenty bucks says that in the last month you have, without really thinking about it, forwarded a rant against a label that you can’t stand. Or a joke that finds its humor in giving someone a label.

The thing is, I can’t take that bet. I checked my own social media. I’ve done it too.

And it’s not just that you and I do it to other people.

Because labeling is so well-ingrained into our culture, you and I even do it to ourselves.

We’ll grab a label for ourselves – Republican, Democrat, conservative, progressive, traditionalist, feminist, libertarian, environmentalist, whatever – the specific label really doesn’t matter. But what comes next, that does matter.

We’ll grab that label for ourselves, and then act like that label – whatever it is – is the defining character of our lives. As if that one label fully expressed the totality of who we are.

Kierkegaard was right when he said, “when you label me, you negate me.” But there’s something else that’s true.

When I label me, I negate me.

Labelling ourselves comes at a price. The price of our own humanity.

And that includes our ability to empathize. To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. To see something in others that’s just like something in us.

When we label others and label ourselves, we lose the ability to see what we have in common with them. Unless they have our same label, we won’t be able to see what we share with them. Because we’re focusing on something that is only a small part of them. And only a small part of us.

Have you ever seen a river stone? A river stone is a stone that’s been in a river so long, that so much water has washed over, that it is completely smooth. So smooth that there are no corners or edges. When you turn it over in your hand, it’s perfectly smooth.

Really, it only has one side that wraps around in every direction.

You can call a river stone whatever color it is. And then you’re done. You’ve done a pretty complete, pretty accurate job of describing it. Because that’s all there is to a river stone, with its one side.

That doesn’t work with people. Because people aren’t river stones. People don’t have just one side.

People are more like diamonds.

Your basic diamond, an engagement ring diamond, has at least 58 sides to it. Tiny sides, called facets.

Together, all of those tiny sides make up the whole diamond. If one of those tiny sides was missing, you’d notice that something was off.

But each one of those sides is so tiny that no one of them can show you everything there is to know about that diamond. It is only when they are taken together that they can tell you what you need to know about that diamond.

People are at least as complex as diamonds.

Because of that, when we put a label on someone or on ourselves, even if we’re right in using that label, we aren’t saying very much. That label, even if it’s right, tells us 1/58th of what there is to know.

Probably less.

There is, however, one label that does matter. And we hear it in today’s Gospel.

As Jesus is being baptized, God says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.”

I don’t know whether you remember your baptism. Maybe you were baptized as an infant and don’t remember anything about it. Maybe you were baptized as an adult, and were so busy remembering to go here, and say these words, and stand there, that you didn’t hear it.

I know when my kids were baptized I was so worried about godparents, and who was going to bring grandma, and getting pictures, that I didn’t hear it.

But when I did my first baptism here at St. Al’s, I heard it.

I heard what God said at that first baptism in the Jordan.

It’s what God says at every baptism.

It’s what God said at your baptism.

And what God is still saying to you today.

“You are my beloved child; in you I am well pleased.”

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