Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Do You Call Yourself?

What do you call yourself? Man? Woman? Spouse? Parent? American? Teacher, computer programmer, or SAHM? Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist? DIY enthusiast? Athlete? Songwriter? Any of the labels we talked about on Monday?

Your job, your position in a family, your religious affiliation, your hobbies--all these serve to give us labels. Labels tell us who you are and what categories we can associate you with, what we can expect of you--where you are oriented in social space.

There is a movement mostly in the church to say that labels aren't important. Our identity is in Christ. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman, for you are all one in Christ."

Partially, I agree. We are, or ought to be, unified in love. We ought to "live at peace with everyone." We need to look past labels and see the commonality that all human beings have, far greater than any of our differences. We ought to strive for equality.

Moreover, Jesus is the most important label I put myself under. My whole life is a story revolving around the questions I've asked and quests I've taken regarding God. God is the reason I didn't end up killing myself almost a decade ago.

But for life to go on, we need labels. I do not only wrestle with questions of Jesus all day. I also write; struggle with food; play with my cat; love my husband. You can list those things like that, or you can make them labels--writer, cat-owner, wife--but neither wording changes reality. Jesus is in my head all the time, but I do other things throughout my day.

We use labels inside the church, too. Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox? Greek or Coptic? Presbyterian or Baptist? Lutheran or Evangelical? Liturgical or non? Priest or pastor? Choir or band? Transsubstantiation or consubstantiation? The list goes on.

Labels are just the things we use to sum up an idea. Instead of having to explain my thoughts on Christ's presence in the Eucharist time and again, I can just give you one word that puts the whole idea in one neat package. By telling you what kind of a church I attend, I tell you what my Sundays (or Saturdays) look like, and types of behavior you can expect from me regarding my spirituality.

Labels don't have to be scary.

It's true, sometimes we make too much of our roles. We can found our identity on one thing, and when that thing gets taken away, we are disillusioned. I had a friend whose whole identity was being a soccer player. When she injured herself and had to stop, she didn't know who she was. She had to carve out a new understanding of herself, with new labels and new activities.

Sometimes it's good to take a break from your labels and roles. To step back and say, "I am not a writer today. Not a reader. Not an engineer. Not a homemaker. Not a runner. Not a ____. I am just a human being." You learn a lot about yourself that way.

But at the end of the day we will always come back to labels. Labels tell us what we're doing next. You're a dad; you have to pick your kids up from school. You're an employee, and you need to finish lunch and get back to work. You're a blogger, and you need to wrap up that blog post.

Labels don't have to control us. They can, instead, be a way of informing others in a small way about who we are. They can help us find community. What mom of toddlers doesn't wish to find other moms of toddlers? What writer can survive without other writer friends? What Christian doesn't look for a church--a place with other Christians?

We look for people who are similar to us. There's a balance to this, of course. We need to be exposed to diversity so that we build empathy and are forced outside ourselves to encounter the world as it is, not as we assume it is. We also need similarity sometimes, to be understood, to not have to explain every little piece of ourselves but to have someone nod their head and say, "I totally know what you mean. Here's my solution."

Queer is another label like this.

It allows us to communicate a whole idea, instead of having to say, every single time, "people who don't conform to gender or sexual norms in post-modern American culture, specifically in regards to sexual and romantic attraction to the same sex or multiple sexes, and in regards to what sex or gender a person fits into in relation to what sex or gender they were assigned at birth, who may or may not all constitute a single homogeneous group of common interests." Instead, we just say, "queer."

We use that label to talk about issues that have to do with queerness, like marriage equality, suicide prevention, and hate crimes. We also use that label to tell each other that we are the same: to find community where we can talk about our grievances, share stories, discuss churches that won't deny us entrance, encourage one another to not lose hope...

The queer label has the same importance as any other label a person might choose for themselves. It tells you who they are. It tells you not to make that anti-gay joke right now. It tells you that they have probably faced discrimination and would understand, in a way, your struggles with ableism or sexism. It shows what you have in common, and what you have yet to learn about someone who is different, but still human like you.

Word count: 951.