Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Reading Labels

Several recent conversations have got me thinking about labels. Years ago, people started reading content labels on their food, discovering things in their food that they didn’t know were there. Over time, regulations required more disclosure on labels, and people became more knowledgeable about understanding the significance of various ingredients.

Anyway, I have been thinking of how we use labels in general. We use them to identify or categorize something, like mammals, or brand names. Labels are intrinsic to communication and information, and serve a useful purpose.

Labels can also affect our experience. In one recent conversation, a parent was describing a particular situation with his child as a problem and was feeling very worried and frustrated. I asked him why he thought the situation was a “problem.” He described an outcome that he considered “bad.” First, I pointed out that the outcome he described was one of many possible outcomes. And second, I asked him why the outcome he described would be bad. (Judgments are another way we attach labels.) When he was able to think beyond the judgment and the initial label of a problem, he was able to look at the situation with a more expansive view. He visibly calmed down and saw the situation in a more neutral way.

In another conversation, a friend was relating an encounter that left him very upset. My friend is white and the encounter was with a person of color. The  person had objected to something my friend said. My friend tried to explain, making matters worse. The other person called my friend a racist. My friend denied it.

As I was listening, I could understand why the other person might have taken offense at my friend’s initial comment, which could have been understood several different ways. But any effort to have meaningful dialogue was quickly obliterated by the label of racist, which became the focus of the escalating argument.

I’m not taking sides here on whether the label was justified. Perhaps it was. That’s not the point. The point is that any opportunity for my friend to understand how his initial comment might have been insensitive was lost in the debate about the label. Correct or not, the label ended any genuine communication. And the continued defensiveness against the label hindered any honest reflection about hidden assumptions or biases my friend’s initial comment might reveal.

So labels can be useful, but they can also be obstacles, especially when unquestioned, as in the first conversation, or when used as an attack or defense, as in the second. These conversations have made me take a closer look at some of the labels I use, and how they affect my assessment of a situation, my emotional reactions, and my ability to have meaningful communication. I’m going to make more effort to “read” the labels I use and see what the hidden ingredients are!

Once you label me you negate me. ~Søren Kierkegaard

Sometimes letting go is simply changing the labels you place on an event. Looking at the same event with fresh eyes.  ~Steve Maraboli

14 thoughts on “Reading Labels”

  1. I fight my own use of labels every day. Even if- even though- they might fit, I ask that God open my eyes to how He sees it. Of course the key words here are (It's a) fight-every-day.

  2. Labels work in many instances, but not when we are sizing up our fellow human beings. The most recent example I can cite is how black commentators on CNN went after Kanye West for supporting President Trump, calling West the "White House Negro." Can you imagine if someone labeled as the "other side" had spoken the same, what melee would have ensued?
    It's time to check our labels at the door and to look at the human being, made in God's image, and beloved by Him. Let's look at the plank in our own eyes before we judge the speck in our brother's or sister's.
    Blessings, Galen, and thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.

  3. Martha, I hesitated to write this post because I did not want to make it about race or politics. I don't want to call out any particular network, commentator, politician, or anyone else. The labels you describe are unfortunate no matter who uses them or on what side. It's not about who is on the "other side" or which side says what. The post really grew out of these two conversations which made me think about all the ways we use labels, and especially to be more aware of how I sue them. Thank you for ending your comment by pointing out that we all share our common humanity beyond labels and division.

  4. I so agree that labels are ways to categorize people as good or bad as they relate to ourselves. We are so much more than that! I am as guilty as anybody else at labeling, and your post makes me realize I must do more to mitigate my errors. Sending you hugs and hope you have a great weekend, Galen! 🙂

  5. DJan, observing ourselves without judgment is the first step. I smiled at your use of the word "errors." There is a great example of using labels! If we can simply watch with openness and honesty, we will begin to peel back the layers of the labels we use and become more deeply aware. To use the analogy of the post, if we "read" the labels we use, we will see the hidden ingredients. We can then decide, just like we would with food, whether we want to "eat" them or not! Thanks and I hope you have a good weekend too. I look forward to reading your Sunday post.

  6. Yes, we use labels to categorise and box people, experiences, and things to make our lives supposedly easier and to feel we are 'in the right'. Not being disposed to question the labels is for many people the simpler route to fulfil the need of deciding where they stand in relation – which begs the question why do we need to do this assessment? Why is is so important to judge and decide? (don't know the answer right now!)

  7. It's a tough one, Lynne. We can't communicate or educate without labels and categories, but they can become an obstacle to communication and education. I remember a young woman who was learning to speak English as a second language offering the advice to "speak wisely." I think she was really trying to say something else, but I was struck by the inadvertent wisdom of her admonition!

  8. This was a well written post on labels from different views. I agree with it all and feel that as a society we have to many labels with gender, equality, politics, classes of people and etc. It's sad in many ways that we can't communicate without judging and or labeling. More individuals should read your thoughts on this one.
    Blessings and hugs!

  9. Thanks, LeAnn. Labels can be so helpful sometimes, but other times they really are an obstacle to connection. I'm thinking of several people I'm become friends with through this blog. If we stopped at the door of labels, we might never have walked through and gotten to know each other!

  10. "When you don't cover up the world with words and labels, a sense of the miraculous returns to your life" -Eckhart Tolle

    When I read this post Galen I thought of several quotes from Eckhart Tolle . When we label something, we no longer see its true nature. When we name a flower, a bird or a person we limit our perception of the miraculous life behind the form, the phenomenon of its life essence.

  11. It's such a natural instinct to "know" and we know by labeling. I was at the creek one time and saw a beautiful flower. The first thought I had was wondering about its name. Almost like it didn't exist if I didn't know what to call it. Good grief.

  12. I am slowly learning to look at trees and plants and animals in such a way that I am seeing them for the first time ..sort of with the zen sense of beginners mind. Its not easy though, because we have been programed to label everything. We really do limit our perception with labels, judgements and preconceived ideas about everything.

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