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Let’s Lose the Labels

Over and over and over I am getting the lessons: Don’t judge people by their appearances. Don’t make assumptions. And don’t label others! Look beyond the labels.

Recently I have been living in a tiny village of about 1000 people. It’s six miles from a larger town, and though it’s in California (northern California), at times it feels like it could be in Kansas. It feels so Middle America. Where I live, there are farmers and ranchers and blue collar workers. There is a gas station and convenience store, a bakery, and a mill, but mostly the main street is filled with empty buildings and businesses which have gone out of business. There are a few flags flying here and there.

If I had to guess, I would guess most of my new neighbors were Republicans. And, if I am honest, I would have made several assumptions based on that assumption. (I have been a political progressive since I was a teenager.) What a surprise when I discovered just how darn nice everyone was! From the young man hitchhiking into town who was saving up money so he could marry his girlfriend and have a bunch of kids, to the owner of the diner who used to be a registered nurse and whose husband died at the age of 39, to the man who manages the mechanic shop who charged me for only three hours of labor to fix my car instead of the six that were actually invested, to the volunteer who works at the thrift shop that benefits the local hospice… Everyone has been so nice.

It was humbling. Just because many, no doubt, voted for a man that I shudder to think of as supposed leader of the free world, doesn’t mean they aren’t nice!

I kind of imagine they would have similar epiphanies were they to have conversations with tatoo-ed backpackers, New Age-y Buddhists, or immigrants working hard to support their families. They would probably be just as surprised to realize how very nice we can be.

Last year I was visiting my sister and her daughter’s family at Fort Bragg, the largest army base in the country. When I pulled up near the gates, I found I had to register. I worried for a minute about whether or not they’d let me in. After all, I’d been a peace activist for many years in my twenties and thirties. Probably the CIA had a file on me. (We all know how threatening peace can be!)

The uniformed man in charge took my paperwork, looked at it for a minute and then said I’d have to come back tomorrow. I must have looked stricken. I was planning on staying with my sister. I probably didn’t even have enough money for a hotel room. He looked at my face and then burst into laughter. “April Fools,” he said. He smiled, “Had you going there, didn’t i?” Suddenly he turned into this really nice, friendly guy. Of course, he had been all along, but my judgments and assumptions got in the way.

When I was in the airport a few months ago, a woman sat across from me who was very beautiful. It looked like she had come straight from the bathroom with freshly applied red lipstick and long hair pulled back into a fashionable ponytail. She was tall and slender and wore slim pants, a leopard print cleavage-showing top, a nice jacket, and high heeled boots. I judged her to be not only beautiful, but well-to-do. And in my head, this combination meant she must be a snob. Meanwhile, I had already been up for 24 hours and I had about another 20 hours of traveling ahead of me. I was totally dressed for comfort. I was also keenly aware of my not-so-fashionable hair and less-than-slender body. I grew so uncomfortable by our disparity that I moved to another seat. But then, of course, I began to worry that by moving to another seat I had offended her.

As fate would have it, when we finally boarded our plane at about 12:30 a.m., who do you think was sitting directly across the aisle from me? But I didn’t have a chance to talk with her because she closed her eyes and effortlessly fell asleep. Six hours later, morning arrived, and with it our breakfast. The woman looked immaculate. Her hair was still great, her lipstick still in place. When I surveyed my breakfast tray I discovered the yogurt I’d been given was not a flavor I was fond of, and so I found myself offering it to her. She accepted it with the most radiant smile. I couldn’t believe how beautiful and sincere her smile was. She seemed so very nice. I was a fool. Silly, silly me.

When we label one another, we do each other such a disservice. When we think of one another as Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, black or white, beautiful or unattractive, young or old, warmonger or pinko pacifist, Christian or Muslim, we suddenly shift from being fellow human beings into being an “us” versus a “them.” And us vs. them always gets us in trouble. It’s how wars start. When we think of others as “other,” we unconsciously write them off as being unworthy of our attention or love or respect. We close down the dialogue. We lose the opportunity for healthy interaction.
I wonder if I could go for one week without attaching a label to anyone–silently or out loud, consciously or unconsciously. Shoot, I bet I’d have trouble doing this for even one day.

Would you be willing to try it? Do you think you could walk down the street without thinking: “He’s old. She’s fat. He’s a snob?” Could you read Facebook without thinking: “She’s conservative. He’s a racist. She’s dumb?”
Or, even better, if you notice yourself attaching a label or a judgment to someone, would you be willing to go out of your way to have a conversation with her or him anyway?

Let’s face it. We are all human and we are all flawed. But, just maybe, there is beauty within each of us anyway. If only we were willing to look hard enough.

Let’s LOSE THE LABELS. It’s one step toward peace.

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