#25. The Loneliness of Labels
I kind of wanted to leave this week's letter with my art up there and let you come up with the words. I'm tired. Are you? I think the whole world must be tired. Sticks and stones break bones, but words can do so much more than that. Such is the beauty and tragedy of what can be spoken, written, or read.
We're born and it happens immediately, if not before we make our first appearance: our earliest earthly label.
It's a girl! Or a boy!
The separation begins. Unless you can somehow manage otherwise.
As we grow along, we're handed as many labels as the ones we create for ourselves, and we tack them on like signposts showing others where to find us, how to regard us, what to say, what not to say. Stop or go. Yield, merge, stay over there. Enter, or keep out entirely.
Then we die, and the most important labels get engraved upon our tombstones.
It all makes me think of, in a roundabout way, the poem by Shel Silverstein.
She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through.
Then passed right by–
And never knew.
For this week's art, I (sorta) searched high and low for a label maker. The old-school kind that spits out embossed and shiny labels. The kind you can't tear apart, even if you really tried. I don't know why it was so important to me, to have the words that identify and don't identify who I am printed out on embossed and shiny labels that you can't tear apart, even if you really tried. I settled for the kind that used cheap, matte paper. Tearable. To be confused, I guess, with "terrible." In the end, it really didn't matter. Just like whatever was printed on them.
Labels are how we make sense of ourselves, of the world around us.
This makes sense.
But here's my problem with labels:
The choicelessness. Whether or not we're conscious of them, they're there, and they're not as optional as we might like to believe. The optimist in me likes to believe that initial intentions are always well-meaning, that labels are a harmless method of organizing, reminding, motivating. And there is that, of course. But, as with most good intentions, it's a very short walk to the cliff before we plunge into the chasm.
The deceptive innocuousness of labels blinds us to the inherent barriers they create. (Don't believe me? Ask the dishes.)
Some labels are given to us, but they don't fit right. Friend, best friend, Asian.
Others we give to ourselves, but they don't ring all the way true. Therapist, artist.
Some incite discomfort, the pressure to live up to something. Filipino/a, writer.
The problem with labels is that they sometimes stay stuck, untearable almost. Even if we unstick them and throw them away. If labels are how we make sense of the world, what happens when we rip them off? Well, it confounds. And we, as a general rule, don't like to be confounded. We prefer our familiar compartmentalizations. Those compartments keep things organized so that we don't have to do the work of re-arranging our entire mindsets and outlooks, the way others see us and the way we see them.
Every time someone asks me for an identifier--what do you do? where are you from? what religion do you practice and what are your political leanings? a hint as to which box to place me in--and every time I do the same, something inside of me rolls its eyes at the absurdity of it all, this game we play where we operate under the illusion we're making connections when we're really just sizing up.
And in this way, labels are lonely. The power they have to separate at the drop of a ("wrong") word. The weight of these labels becomes too isolating, too much, until we realize that the whole point is to shed them all, until we reach the wordlessness of the very center.
With love and thanks,
Are you craving a prompt for journaling or thinking or conversing? Here you go--
What labels have been assigned to you by society or yourself?
How have labels served you? How have they harmed you?
Which would you like to keep or discard?
Labels are shorthand. What are they shorthand for?