Labels, boxes, and language can be problematic. We think something isn’t real unless it fits in the confines of language, a box of understanding, or a clear label and name we can understand. This rigidity of thinking impacts not only what and how we value things, ideas, people and experiences but how we listen, understand and care for people in our lives. Labels don’t allow for mystery, wonder, nuance and complexity.
I recently listened to an episode of Pete Holmes’ “You Made it Weird” podcast (logo left, source), with guest Richard Rohr (here’s a direct link from another blog). Pete Holmes is completely himself, delightful, and a joy to listen to. He interviews fellow comedians for the most part, for about 2.5-3 hours in length. Needless to say, after that period of time a great number of jokes get thrown around, but more importantly–the conversation gets deep into real life issues of family, love, life events and loss. This particular episode is a bit different. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar and spiritual mystic. Pete and Richard talk about some of life’s biggest questions. The first chunk of minutes are about dualistic thinking. About how, as humans, we thrive thinking in a world of very rigid opposites. Of those opposites, we judge that one is always better than the other. Tall is better than short. Thin is better than fat. The list goes on.
Relationship status is something that has never been so pronounced in our culture. Flip to a friend or family member’s Facebook page and there it is in clear letters: Single. In a relationship with ____. Married to ______. Thumb through the pages of Aziz Ansari’s “Modern Romance,” or “Marriage, a History,” and revisit how drastically romantic unions have shifted in form and meaning over the centuries. I remember that in college, friends would affectionately refer to conversations “defining the relationship” as a “DTR.” You would say to a friend: “I had a DTR with _____ last night.” // “Oh yeah? What happened?!!”
The more life we experience, the more we find that labels don’t help things be more concrete, trustworthy or organized. The reality of our world is–things change. Sure, I have a relationship status this day, but the next day it could be something completely different. One relationship with the same “label” may look completely different than another. Labels are deceiving. They’re inconsistent as they are inaccurate. Labels are confining and aren’t accurate for long.
The very wise educator, novelist and personal friend of mine, Katie Cohen (pictured right), talks often about the fact that “What is; is.” Acknowledge, accept and appreciate it. Don’t get so anxious about asking questions, getting clarification–so you can label, box, confine and control it. The reality is, even if you were to label, box and confine it–you can’t control it. Change and mystery are realities of our world. I talked a few posts ago about a TED Talk and the idea “is there a real you?” Humans, as are ideas and circumstances, are constantly evolving and growing and moving and shaking.
I spent two years in Italy, beginning with a stint in Greece where I met Piergiuseppe (pictured left) while camping on the island of Santorini. He and I have stayed friends while living in the same city serendipitously in Italy, and now as he and his wife are now living in the US. Way back when, Piero let me know this cultural nugget: “The Italians say that if you have to ask if a connection is real, it’s not real.” Yes, the Italians are in ultimate opposition to the DTR. Relationships and love, life and death, truth and meaning are outside of what Richard Rohr would call rigid thinking. They are bigger than labels, and can’t be boxed. As Katie would say, “they are what they are.”
I recently listened to Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Jamie Foxx (pictured left, source). Jamie talks about how he has taught his daughters to be fearless, just as his grandmother instilled courage in him at a young age. He says he asks his daughters: “What’s on the other side of fear? If you were to stand in the middle of this carpet and yell, what would happen after that? Nothing. It’s still the same situation. Yelling doesn’t change anything.” Fear is a valid emotion, yes–but just because something is mysterious or fear-inducing doesn’t mean it should be labeled as such, boxed, avoided and dropped. In fact, we may just find that the feared experience was one of the most beloved experiences of our lives. The hated idea may be the most dear. The shunned person could be the one that has the most to teach us.
The reality is that whether or not we label, box, confine or attempt to control something–it is what it is. Complexity is intricately tucked into in our daily lives and relationships.
What work do you need to do this week to remove labels from the ideas, people, and circumstances of your life?
How are you trying to label, define or confine, box and control people, things, and events?
What would it look like to let things be what they are? What would it look like to invite mystery, wonder, and the unknown into your life just a bit more?