Do you have lovely eyes? A noble nose? An infectious smile? Sometimes it’s hard to see our own outstanding features, even if they are obvious to everyone else. That’s because some of us can’t see beyond the big, invisible labels on our foreheads.
We sang How Great Thou Art at church the other day. The beautiful, timeless song inspired me to lift my eyes and my voice to heaven. The choir is looking for new members and for a fleeting moment I thought, “Maybe I should join.”
I dismissed that idea as quickly as it occurred. I’m not the “singer” in the family. That’s Judy, Libby, and Bill. I’m the “smart” one.
Kids are assigned their roles very early in life. Maybe you could read before the other kids: you’re “smart”. Maybe you walked and ran easily: you’re the “jock”. Maybe you kept your crayon scribbles inside the lines: you’re the “artist”. Maybe you cried or raged or couldn’t sit still: you’re the “difficult child”.
Our first labels come from our families. These are honed when we get to school and new ones are added. Those early labels have a way of sticking.
I liked being thought of as “smart”. Having that reputation makes school easier. There may not really be a “permanent record” that follows you from grade to grade, but teachers hear things. They’re only human. When they expect you to do good work, they give you the benefit of the doubt.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m no Einstein. I’m reasonably intelligent but, as I discovered as I started swimming in bigger ponds, there are a lot of smart fish in the sea; many are lots smarter. But that was the label I was given as a child and it stuck, inside and out.
“Smart” was great, but I wanted to be other things, too. In junior high and high school, I would have traded all my “smart” for “pretty”, “popular” and the Holy Grail of teenage labels, “cool”.
I secretly longed to try out for our high school’s musicals, but I was scared. Besides, I wasn’t a “singer”. “Singers” took chorus. I took band. All the “cool” kids were in chorus and they got all the parts in the plays. My place was in the orchestra pit with the rest of the “band nerds”.
If being stuck with a label like “smart” can be limiting, how much worse are the labels that demean and hurt? Labels like “troublemaker”, “lazy”, “stupid” or just plain “bad”.
My mother tells the story of a conversation she had with my little brother, Jim, when he was a kid. Jim was the funny goof-off, the jock, and the popular one. He wasn’t known as the greatest student. They were talking about some trouble he was having with a subject and, frustrated, he blurted out, “School is really hard for me. I’m not “smart” like Bill and Peg!”
That’s the kind of attitude that can define your entire life if you let it. Jim didn’t let it.
In the early years he may have internalized the labels that the school stuck on him, but somewhere along the line he ditched them. Jim defined himself. He got a degree in business, worked for a few years and then decided to go to dental school. The “goof-off” is the only one of us nine siblings with the title “Dr.” before his name.
So much for labels.
Labels can be a convenient shorthand to identify strengths and weaknesses, but should be used carefully. We have to guard against the tendency to limit ourselves – and others – to the neat, little pigeonholes we’ve become accustomed to.
After all, you’re not free to fly if you’re stuck in a pigeonhole.
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p.s. As with all my siblings, my sister Libby can proudly wear many labels advertising her many strengths and talents. But the label associated with her for life is from a commercial for canned goods from our youth. I can still hear that jingle in my head because we sang it at her ad nauseam, “When it says Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s on the label, label, label, you will hate it, hate it, hate it on the table, table, table…” Sorry, Lib.
p.p.s. In case you’re wondering; no, I’m not joining the church choir. I’ll let my voice soar from the safety and anonymity of the pew.
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