Monday, August 25, 2014

Stars and Dots

I have been called a conservative, a feminist, an American, a European, an evangelical, a mystic (it's a long story), and many other things by many people. And, when those words are unpacked by the particular people that chose them, I am all of these things. But they are not necessarily how I would describe myself. In fact, I have a hard time applying adjectives to myself beyond the essentials: Christian, lover of Jesus, lover of people. Beyond that, I am too complicated to successfully describe myself with a few trite words without constructing a false image.
 For example, when the word feminist is defined as a woman who thinks deeply, who can hold her own in an argument, who doesn’t take the Biblical injunction for wives to submit to their husbands as an excuse for men to treat women like doormats, and who has a wide comfort zone, I am a feminist. However, I do not go around saying that I am a feminist, because the definition I just gave you is a pretty personalized one, and not one that most people think of when they hear that word.
The thing is, definitions matter. All too often, people either talk about entirely different things using the same terminology or the same things using different terminology. Either way, if terms are not defined confusion is the predictable result. I know from personal experience: I have a tendency to think I know what someone is saying and then to completely misunderstand them because I misunderstood their terms.
This confusion when it comes to defining terms is toxic when it comes to the terms we use to label people. Labels do have their place, but only when we realize that a person is more than the label you stick on them.
One of the books I loved as a kid is You Are Special, by Max Lucado. It tells the story of the Wemmicks, wooden puppets who spend their time sticking gold stars or grey dots on other Wemmicks. The Wemmicks who have lots of gold stars are extremely popular, and the Wemmicks who have mostly grey dots are social failures. The story is about a Wemmick called Punchinello. Punchinello is completely covered in grey dots, and is very depressed. One day, he meets a Wemmick named Lucia who has no stickers at all. It’s not that people don’t try to give them to her: they just won’t stick. She tells Punchinello that she goes to see the Maker every day, and she knows Him, she doesn’t care what the other Wemmicks think. And so, while she still possesses the characteristics that cause other Wemmicks to try to give her stickers, they don’t stick. She is not defined by any one trait – except the love of the Maker.
I think that all of us have probably glibly applied a label to someone, just as the Wemmicks apply stickers, and then never seen beyond that label to the person it describes. We miss seeing a masterpiece of the Maker when we do this. Once a person has a label, like American or conservative or homosexual or socialist or homeschooler or gardener or whatever, it is easy to stop seeing the person and only see your particular definition of the label.
The problem with a label is that while it is meant to describe someone, it often ends up defining him (or her) in our minds. And no person can be defined by one, or two, or ten labels. People are much more complex than that.  
In Anna Karenina, one character, Oblonsky, says that Levin, his future brother-in-law, is a reactionist. Levin answers to the effect that, “I never thought about what I am. I am Constantine Levin: that is all.” How often do I miss who the people in my life are because I am so preoccupied trying to figure out what they are?
I think it is okay to use words to describe people – that is one of the ways we navigate life in community. But I think that before we describe someone, we should seek to see who he is – not what he is – before God. Only after that should we carefully apply labels from that understanding, rather than using labels as a kind of shortcut (and shortcuts often turn out to be long detours) to understanding someone.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, so I just found your new blog and, I've gotta say, it has been a delightful find. Definitely some thought provoking thoughts here. Looking forward to following along!