Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Labels Are Ghosts That Cling to Our Backs

Just because the message may never be received, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth sending - Japanese Buddhist teaching.
Labeling people is something I not only distrust; it makes me sad. For instance, Helen Keller, blind and deaf, was early on labeled as dumb – something that’s not uncommon for someone who’s challenged in speaking. She was fortunate enough to meet a woman who wanted to know her, to help. In the ensuing years, her gifts were uncovered, and she went on to become a well-known author and advocate for women’s suffrage and people with disabilities. She counted among her good friends, Mark Twain and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It’s easier to label the woman who washed clothes for years on end as the ‘help’, the one who could always be seen with her hands in soapy water, or bent over an ironing board. Then you learn when she’s retired or dead, that she saved close to a million dollars and left it all to scholarships for at risk children who promised to graduate from high school. I like to imagine that at least 10 out of those 100 went on to create a life very different from what others believed they were destined to live.
Today, labeling has become particularly insidious. It’s easy to call someone an extreme conservative or socialist commie. Sometimes, I wish I could sit down with one of them for an hour or more. As they began to preach about that person or party and the damage they’d done, I imagine a conversation that might go something like this:
1) Me: I can see that this really concerns you and I want to be sure I fully understand you’re saying. Could you please state that in slightly different terms?
(That tends to slow someone down, because they think that since you didn’t hear what they said, you’re probably slow, or even dumb.)
2) Then I would repeat what they said and ask if I got it right. Then I would give them more recognition. ‘I can hear how this concerns you. Is there anything else that concerns you about this? Can you expand on what you’re saying?
(Now they know you’re listening and they tend to talk not only slower, but more thoughtfully.)
3) After they’ve expanded on their thoughts, I tell them ‘I can see how that could
be really troubling. I’ve thought about that too, in slightly different way. I proceed to lay out my thoughts, seeking ways we can find a mutually agreed upon solution. At that moment in time, we be successful, but we may have opened a door to future dialogue.
The highly esteemed author and creator of Non Violent Communications, Marshall Rosenberg was once called to assist at a meeting of Jews and Palestinians that took place on the West Bank. The first day was rife with accusations and labels – ‘Murderer’ and ‘Thief’ as each side unloaded all of their loss and anger. Then came the second day. Each of those horrifying experiences were verbally recognized by the opposite side. Then, Rosenberg began to ask each one: What is it you really want? What do you need? What can’t you live without?
By the end, everyone in the room realized that the two things they wanted most were two things they all shared; safety, and a chance for their children to be educated. Then they began talking about small steps they might take to make those things happen.
Labels are the ghosts of our emotions and our imagination. Feeding those ghosts has them clinging to our backs. They speak through our words. They impoverish our conservations and our lives.
When you find yourself labeling someone else, stop and ask yourself:
1)Who does this person love?
2)Has he ever cried?
3)Is he lonely?
4)What changed him from the child he once was?
5)Did anyone ever tell him he mattered?
6)What is he really seeking?

Somewhere inside those questions, you may find a shared truth.

1 comment:

  1. I just LOVE that imaginary dialog. I'll be having occasion to use that soon. Thank you so much. It arrived like a gift from Heaven.

    And yeah, labels suck. But in a way they are useful in achieving balance. If some say I'm a doormat who lets certain people walk all over me, and others say I'm the most selfish human being who ever lived, then I take an average and figure, I'm doing okay.