Life is busy, and thinking takes time. Worse, thinking takes discipline. I am as tempted as the next person to attach a label to myself. The label comes with a ready made set of beliefs assigned to the label. A "liberal" label means you spend more, invite government help, and promote gay rights, for example. A "conservative" label means you endorse "traditional family values," oppose abortion, desire less government and fewer taxes, and a "strong military."
Attaching the label can give a sense of security: you "know" who you are, and you "know" who the next guy is. If I assign a label to you, I then know all about you, and all about myself. Our choices and behavior are predictable. Labels are efficient: no need to ask questions, spend time understanding your background, current challenges or dreams. No need to listen to your heart, or look for hints of your character.
I recently undertook some acting lessons through the South Coast Repertory. One of the reasons for adding these classes to my busy schedule was to experience what it is like to remove my self-labeling for a while, and put on another label. In acting, you develop a strong sense of the place, circumstances, relationships, and motivation of your "new labeling." Your character wants something, and will use various tactics to reach his goal. Behind the label is fear, joy, sorrow, anticipation, dejection, love, hate, despair, vengeance, you name it. Somehow, you search and find the core of the character, and become that person. Imagine what such a skill can do for your relationships? I imagined for example, how acting could improve my role as a lawyer: to feel my client's pain; to experience the boredom of the jury; to view the case through the eyes of the judge; to look at the case as if I were the opposing party. What a rich source of information, and what a great way to reach each player in the game. You simply connect better when you speak within the other person's frame of meanings.
The favorite person of all time for me is Jesus Christ. Now "Christian" is a label! People have very strong associations with that label, negative and positive. Christianity in the 21st century American culture has a lot of deserved negative associations: judgmental, legalistic, cold, hypocritical. Shall I go on? I mention this particular label because the man himself, Jesus, started it all. I've read about him, prayed to him, encountered him, and sought to know him. My impression of him 32 years ago when I first read the Gospel of Matthew as a young man was that I couldn't label him. I remember putting the Bible down, and being stunned. I couldn't put this guy in a box. Somehow in the story of his life, he emerged as completely different. I have spent the balance of my life struggling to repeat, revive, and remain with that essential encounter with a living person. The Church has been both a help and a hindrance. Churches have a love affair with labels called "doctrine" and "religion."
Most of the incivility and name calling in the U.S. Congress is the result of labeling. The continuous violence in the Middle East is also based on hard categories of "them" and "us." As a civil rights and employment lawyer, most of my cases originate from actions at work based on unconscious, and therefore unchecked biases against persons labeled as "old" or "inferior" or "disabled," for example. As we have all read, "you do not know what you do not know that you do not know." In a more positive statement: You can only change what you first bring to awareness.
My own favorite label challenger, Jesus, encountered people authentically at every level of society. He didn't buy into the labels assigned to "women" or the "disabled" or the "poor" or the "sinner." He encountered each person with a heart connection. He saw each person as eternal, valuable to God, capable of love, and in need of healing. His way of reaching people was very inefficient. He took time to connect deeply with a few people. Although he generated some crowd hysteria, he didn't relate to the crowd, or seek them out. He connected primarily with 12 close friends, and a small group of women who traveled with them. He failed miserably at "public relations" and "marketing." He didn't even bother to set up a "church" or "religion." Was this anyway to change the world?
The other day at work, when the office had cleared out, and I was alone with a legal secretary who worked for another attorney in the office, she stopped by the office to chat. I had my agenda. After all I was working late, and wanted to finish. This much older,overweight, and unhappy woman was known to be a complainer. Her boss was the problem, according to her, and yet she took no steps to address the problem. I had labeled her. In fact, I had multiple labels for her. I was too busy to really understand her, and too selfish to want to. For some reason, despite months of enjoying the comforts of labeling, I leaned back in my chair, and listened. I learned she was about to complete adoption proceedings for a grand-niece who would otherwise become a "ward of the county." I learned that she had cared for her critically ill father for eight years in her home, while working full time. She described the hard decisions she made during his last days of hospice care. I learned of her fears of losing her job, at her age, and in this economy. When the conversation was done, I was left with the sense of something sacred having just occurred: I had seen into the heart of another person. I do not remember the work I was doing at the time, and no one will remember me for the work. I will remember this woman, and perhaps she will remember the experience of being heard.
The truth is that life to be really lived must be lived "inefficiently." It requires us to slow down, to challenge the busyness (or the "business") of a brain stalled society. This kind of creative, fertile inefficiency is not for the weak minded or undisciplined. Tactically, it means building a balanced life in which blocks of time for reflection and deep thinking are included in our schedules. It may mean rising much earlier in the day, and going to bed earlier. It may mean building "margin" in our lives for recreation and "inefficiencies." It may mean new "to do" lists that reflect different priorities, and more realistic ideas of how much tasks really require in time and energy. In short, it means "doing less" in order to "be more."