So you’re walking down the aisle of your regular grocery store. You probably have a routine and a specific ‘route’ for how you’ll most efficiently navigate the process of selecting food items for the week ahead. As you stop to pick up an item from the shelves, you might read the label on the back of the package. This is because you know that slogans on the package’s front-side can be entirely misleading. Phrases such as ‘Healthy’, ‘Low Sugar’, ‘Reduced Sodium’, ‘All Natural’, and ‘Low Cholesterol’ are often simply wrong. They’re nothing more than empty slogans. Misguided or even dishonest efforts to favorably shape your conscious and unconscious mind around the product. As such, you have to look more closely. At the back of the package. For the actual ingredients. For the numbers and percentages of things such as the product’s sugars, sodium, saturated fat, and calories. You have to carefully read the labels. All of them, actually.
While most of us have improved our label discernment around the food and beverages that we consume, far too many of us still struggle with the labels that are placed upon people. On human ‘beings’. More specifically, we struggle with a lack of discernment around the stereotypes, images, and opinions with which other persons are arbitrarily ‘tagged’ in our world. Think about it for a moment. Reflect on the kinds of stories that you hear or read about literally every day. For example, a poor, inner-city person of color is arrested in his early teen years. A young, unmarried female becomes pregnant out-of-wedlock in an isolated, impoverished, rural region of our country. A ‘twenty-something’ person from a very wealthy suburban family develops an opioid addiction and experiences a near-death overdose one day. In too many instances, superficial labels are applied to the people in these kinds of stories. Labels like ‘dishonest’, ‘troubled’, ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’, ‘selfish’, ‘irresponsible’, and ‘reckless’. And on and on.
When we hear or read about stories like these, it’s easy for some to jump to rash conclusions and judgments. Too many of us are quick to draw on wrongly held and generalized biases, misconceptions, negative stereotypes, and assumptions. And we’re apt to stop there… at the front of the ‘proverbial box’… instead of turning the ‘box’ over for much more helpful, insightful details. About the specific facts, data, and circumstances that actually reside beneath the stories and their outcomes. We’re apt to stop before honestly questioning whether the convenient ‘picture’ in our minds about the person and his/her situation actually comports with the deeper, more granular truths beneath the surface layer of things.
Why is it so hard to make this deeper ‘dive’ in search of more meaningful explanations for human misfortune in life? Why is it so easy to simply ‘label’ someone rather than to truly empathize with and ‘join’ him or her in the face of this misfortune? There are many reasons, to be sure. Perhaps it’s more convenient to default to intellectual or emotional laziness. To pass judgment and to move on with our busy lives. Or to make groundless assumptions about another’s reality or motivations in life. Maybe we were brought up as children to think that way. It’s what we were taught about others, and it’s now engrained. Or it’s part of our zero-sum ‘game’ mentality– where the losses of others correspondingly become our gains in some crazy kind of logic. Or part of a rigid belief system. That dictates that past behaviors always predict future ones. If someone’s done this kind of thing before, they’ll surely do more of it in the future. And here you go… they just did.
So there are countless reasons for labeling others with hurtful generalities. But I wonder whether one reason for this is more pronounced than the others. It’s our notion that human actions bring about real and specific consequences. Every time. When we mess up, we’ll have to pay for our mistakes. We’ll be judged and punished. By the authorities, by our families, by organizations, by our friends, or even by God. Mistakes, errors in judgment, or ‘wrong-turns’ in life have short and long-term implications. And they’re going to come back on us for sure. But here’s the problem with this dysfunctional logic: it utterly fails to distinguish our inherent faulty human judgment from harmful intent. It fails to distinguish emotional impulse from planned actions. It fails to see the broader socio-economic, societal, emotional, or mental context in which poor decisions are made. Now this isn’t to say that mistakes should always get a ‘pass’, no matter their significance or impact. But human intent and human context do matter. At least these things should matter in terms of how we judge actions. However, this more thoughtful approach flies in the face of the easy way out: if you do the figurative ‘crime’, you have to do the ‘time’. You know, stick with the glossy slogans on the front of the box. Instead of carefully reading the actual label information on the back.
But here’s what’s even more egregious about glossing over labels in the face of human misfortune. If we’re not careful, we can unwittingly or consciously assign our view of the appropriate consequences of mistakes of others– all based on our pre-existing perceptions of these individuals. Because we already believe that they’re less worthy than we are, we somehow feel that they deserve the negative outcomes. Because we’ve already ‘labeled’ them in certain devaluated ways, we’ve come to expect that misfortune should (and must) surely be heading their way. Or we apply disproportionate ‘punishment’ for their actions in our own minds. Based on our own gradations of people centering on ‘classes’ or ‘genders’ or ‘colors’, not on individuals. When we do this, we not only discard others. We also ‘sentence’ them as forever lost to the results of their actions. Instead of fervently believing in them as people. We ‘shackle’ them rather than helping to empower them toward positive change and growth. When we do these things to others, they lose a major part of their inherent dignity and humanity. But we lose some of ours, as well. For we become less human in our judgment and intolerance.
Given the significantly detrimental impacts of superficial labeling, what can we actually do about it? As truly spiritual persons, how do we get better at reading all human labels far more carefully? It begins by separating people from their current, presumed, and obvious contexts for a moment. I’ve written extensively in the past that context is everything. I’ve stated that it’s very problematic to view human actions, human faith and belief, and human behaviors without first striving to understand the surrounding contexts. If that’s the case, then how do we now separate people (and their stories of misfortune) from their underlying contexts? It all sounds self-contradictory on the surface of things. But it really isn’t, in truth. For the key here is in the notion of ‘presumed’ and ‘obvious’ as they relate to context. It’s not the person’s context that is unhelpful. Instead, it’s our underlying superficial assumptions around these contexts. It’s all quite theoretical without an example, so here’s one for our consideration.
Imagine, for a moment, that you casually hear some negative rumors about a teenaged young man of color living in an abjectly poor inner city neighborhood. He is being raised by his grandmother. That’s the ‘top-line’ context. But it’s tragically, but readily, far too possible for some of us to take the next disconnected step. The step that, in turn, assumes that the young man must have been neglected or abandoned by his parents. That he’s therefore an under-achiever in school. That he is troubled. Probably involved in a neighborhood gang somehow. That he’s never likely to make it out of there. The problem here is obvious: the superficial context and our corresponding assumptions around it are patently false. This becomes evident to us only if we turn the box over and actually read the label carefully. And learn that this young man is an honor-student at his school despite the enormous challenges that he faces. That he is living with his grandmother because she lives in a safer area with a far better school. That he works part-time to help his grandmother make ends meet and to save up for college. And that he’s also active in his local church.
To be clear, we’ve not removed the young man from his context in this hypothetical story. But we have placed him far more accurately and holistically within the broader, richer truths of his own life. We did so only because we took the time to read the label carefully and curiously, not superficially. Perhaps more importantly, we’ve looked at this young man as an individual, not as a ‘member’ of some faceless classification that society has unfairly assigned him to. We’ve ‘listened’ at far deeper levels to this young man’s story. We’ve engaged with the actual facts, not with some meaningless ‘slogan’ or ‘tag’. We’ve entered into this person’s life in a far more profound and holistic way. Explored what makes him unique and special as an inherently worthy person. And, in so doing, we’ve ‘checked’ our biases, prejudices, and assumptions at the door. Instead of bringing them into the room. We’ve resisted the easy way. In favor of the truly human, spiritual, and loving way.
We’ve done all these things. And, profoundly enough in the process, we’ve now seen this young man’s life in a profoundly different way. A way far more aligned with the lens with which God sees us all. Instead of with the lens of our own imperfect making. For God conceives us not with the blurred eyesight of harried shoppers at some grocery store. Not with a superficial glance akin to quickly skimming some slogans on the front of a cereal box. Not blinded by negative, built-in assumptions, stereotypes, and biases. But with God’s own perfect vision. Vision fueled and guided by God’s unbounded love, respect, grace, and compassion for us.
In truth, God doesn’t really need labels anyway. Because God has already ‘labeled’ each of us as Good and Worthy at conception. Now to be sure, we can never see with the eyes of God. For we’re human, and we’re not God. As such, we do need labels to guide us along the way. But it’s incumbent on each of us to create, read, and interpret these labels very, very carefully when it comes to how we view other people. All labels. With great discernment and care. And with the very heart that God so lovingly labeled onto and into our spiritual beings. To do so, we need only seek out that heart from within us. It’s not hidden. We simply have to look for it. And read it carefully… every time… all the time.