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June 13, 2005

Posted by fajita in Uncategorized.

Words have the same kind of power that a rudder on a ship has. Words guide direction, direction determines visible options, visible options determine choices, choices create meaning, and meaning generates history.

So, when people use labels, they assert a meaning onto something and thereby close the case on mystery, relational depth, and the dynamics of the evolving potentials.

Labels are usually unhelpful. Here are some examples:

“Im a Christian.”

Is this a good one or a bad one? Well, it depends on who is interpreting the label. If the interpreter understands me to be a person who loves people like Jesus did, Im relatively safe (if I am actually like that yeah right), unless of course the person believes all kinds of lies about Jesus, which most people do. Then I’m in toruble. However, if that person understands me to be a right wing radical bent on converting the country to conservative politics, then I might be in trouble (unless I am like that oh please no).

“Im depressed.” OR “Shes bi-polar.”

As a marriage and family therapist, I get these a lot. Someone comes into therapy self-diagnosed or worse, has diagnosed someone else in the family. These diagnoses are labels attached to someone which correspond to a list of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Although there is good in them from time to time, there is also so much potential for abuse of power.

Sometimes when someone comes into therapy with a strong sense of diagnosis, I am going to find it hard to be helpful because they often times have more of an allegiance to the label than they do the solution. Im not at all saying that they are frauds. Who wants to be depressed? No one, I assure you. What I am saying is that the label itself has meaning as to how powerful the “disorder” is. Some people understand depression to be the thing that happens to you over which you have no control whatsoever and it cannot be made to go away ever. In short, they’re hopeless.

If there were no word “depressed,” but all of the symptoms were present, how would someone go about communicating about it? It would require a unique conversation, some exploration, in short, it would involve the process of learning. However, if someone shows up and says, “Im depressed,” a complete relational bypass just occurred. A very important process was avoided a process that could have lead to some significant healing.

You see, labels give us the comfort of certainty, but it is a false comfort, sometimes a dangerous comfort. We feel certain about that which we are uncertain. And sadly, the feeling of comfort is enough to allow us to tolerate an unusually high level of self-deception. Given the choice between certainty and depth, we will take certainty much of the time.



1. pegc - June 13, 2005

Wow! Great thoughts. I had to read and re-read some of the post to really understand what you were saying, but then it clicked. It helped me understand prejudice much better and why I have been labeled “progressive”.

In this label, it explains away my questions, my decisions and those who labeled me with this feel certain I am lost!

Thanks for the insight.

Peggy in Texas

2. Neal W. - June 13, 2005

Thanks for this post about a concept many people don’t understand. Labels aren’t some sort of time-saving organizational tool, they are a shortcut around relationship and a way to save yourself the trouble of thinking. Some call me a liberal to avoid having to understand what I’m saying, to avoid listening (Do I use “fundamentalist” in the same way?). Labels are a pretty much unhelpful form of language, and we’d do ourselves a big favor to be careful about their use.

3. Hugo - June 13, 2005

Excellent post – like Pegc & Neal I’ve had my share of labels thrown at me – liberal, progressive, heretic 🙂 – and it does seem like a shortcut way of “dismissing” me from any further thought. I try to work with my students on prejudice and the way that people can stick a label on someone or something without ever getting to know them (your relational shortcut idea) – sometimes it helps them to move beyond shortcuts like that, sometimes it doesn’t.

Glad for the post! 🙂

Blessings & Peace,

4. Steve Jr. - June 13, 2005

Interesting you brought up the “Christian” label — talking with Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost (authors of The Shaping of Things to Come), they were saying that they don’t even use the word “Christian” in Australia. They said people will ask them if they’re Christians, and they’ll say no. They, of course, go on to clarify that they in fact follow the teachings and inspiration of a man who cared about people, justice, the environment, and who sacrificed his life for us. “Ohhh,” people say, “that’s cool.”

You see, in hyper-post-Christian cultures like Australia and the U.K., “Christian” means something completely different to most people on the street than those in the churches want it to mean. News Flash: America is moving in this direction, and fast. Are we prepared to shed the name “Christian,” if needed, in order to better communicate who and whose we are?

Tough question.

5. Neal W. - June 13, 2005

Tony Campolo always says that if he’s on a plane, and feels like chatting when someone asks him what he does for a living, he’ll tell them, “I’m a sociologist” and they are intrigued and can talk for hours. If he doesn’t want to chat, he’ll just say “I’m a minister” and the other person always clams right up.

Christian is not the only label that describes who we are…and we better get ready to let our life define us instead of a word. I’d shed the term in a minute…but unfortunately…it’ll be another test for the church, I think…

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