Yesterday, I finished listening to Martha Beck’s memoir, Expecting Adam, and can’t get this one part out of my head. (Unfortunately, since I was listening to it, I can’t quote it exactly).
She described a day when she was running along the Charles River and spotted a pink object in the grass. Thinking back to her younger days, she remembered searching for Rose Quartz, and was excited to find a piece of it lying randomly in the grass. When she picked it up, though, it was too light to be Rose Quartz, and she discovered it was “just” pink Styrofoam. She immediately threw it to the ground in disgust. When she thought it was a piece of Rose Quartz she felt wonderful and energized by it, but as soon as she discovered what it really was, her experience turned negative. The object itself hadn’t changed one bit, but her perspective and label of it had.
Although I hate to admit it, I do the same thing with people all the time. I label them, often times before they even open their mouth. (Sorry, but you probably do too.) We are judgers and labelers. We try to make meaning out of everything that we do and everything we experience. Putting labels on people and experiences is a way for us to have control and protect ourselves from being vulnerable. It keeps us safe.
What I wonder, though is how often those labels cut us off from what could be remarkable experiences or remarkable relationships? How do we let those labels define us personally, but also box in those around us? We not only wall off others with our labels, but we wall ourselves in too. (The picture that comes to mind is of people in refrigerator boxes trying to shake hands and have a conversation.)
I think about times when I have immediately judged a person and put them in a box, but then after I got to know them, I had to get rid of that box. Unfortunately, I probably just put them in another one. A friend of mine told me that when she first met me, she went home and told her husband (then boyfriend) that she would never be a friend of mine because I was a total bitch. (I am sure I played into that label.) Now, she sees me in a different way, and we can laugh about it.
In the above example, the label shifted and we now have a great friendship, but what about those times when the label doesn’t shift? How does that label affect your relationship? How does it diminish the potential for a relationship, or diminish the other person?
The afternoon that Martha Beck found the Rose Quartz/Styrofoam, she challenged herself to change her labels. As she was completing her shift at work, she tried to look at each person in a new way, with no label. She admitted that it didn’t last very long because she started getting choked up. As she looked at the beauty in all of those people, it almost made her weep.
This week I have a challenge for you. Pick someone in your mind that you have a negative label of. It could be a stranger, someone at work, a family member, or even yourself. What is your label for them? Are they bitchy like I was, or a manipulator, or condescending, or lazy? Think of how that label has affected or will affect the way you interact with them. Now, change your label to something more positive, or try to interact with no label at all. The Buddhists call it having a beginner's mind. What do you notice?