“Once you label me, you negate me” Soren Kierkegaard
A few years ago, I was visiting Jerusalem with my wife. We were on a Mediterranean cruise that had a 2-day stopover in Israel. While we were there we signed up to do several guided tours of the city. On one of the days, we planned to visit all the major tourist sites in and around Jerusalem. At the time, I didn’t know that certain parts of the country were under Palestinian control and others under Israeli control. Several hours into our tour, our Jewish tour guide informed us that we were going to be entering Bethlehem, a Palestinian town, and he would not be able to join us. For hours, we had been enjoying his insight and knowledge of each of the places we visited and he was always giving us the “Jewish perspective”. Once we arrived at the massive walls that surround Bethlehem, it felt like we were walking into a large prison. We passed through security and suddenly we were inside Bethlehem and there was a new bus with a new tour guide. Once we all got on the bus, our new tour guide started to introduce himself and tell us a little bit about Bethlehem. During the introductions, someone brought up that our other tour guide was Jewish and had to wait for us outside the walls, then this person asked our tour guide, “so, what are you?” Our tour guide paused and said “what do you mean?”, The person said, “what do you believe?” Our tour guide laughed and smiled, then he said, “I am a human being, who lives in Bethlehem. What are you?” The message was very clear and no one asked him about his beliefs after that. This experience has stuck with me ever since. I really appreciated his response and I’ve tried to have that same attitude in my own life. “What am I? A human being who lives in Kamas. That’s it!” Nothing more, nothing less.
One of my favorite Buddhist concepts is the concept of “emptiness”. It’s a central teaching in Buddhism and yet it’s often misunderstood. Emptiness does not mean nothingness. It essentially means that “labels” or “concepts” are empty because they don’t exist in and of themselves. They are not nouns, they are adjectives! They can be used to describe how we are but never who/what we are. Think about an object like a car, you can have a red car, but the noun is the car and “red” is simply the adjective that describes the car. In this case, “red” is an example of emptiness. You can’t have a noun that is “red car”, you can only have “car”. Humans are the same, we can only be one thing, human! Any label we add to that can be used to describe but never to define.
Consider the way we use labels in our society: I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat, I’m a Mormon, I’m an Atheist, I’m Smart, I’m Dumb, etc… we use labels as if they were permanent “things” that make us who we are. We inherit genetics from our parents, beliefs and ideas from our family and society, and while these things can form a part of HOW we are, they are not WHAT we are. The problem with our labels is how we use them: as nouns instead of adjectives. When we use labels like “I’m a Mormon / I’m an ex-Mormon / I’m inactive” as nouns, they separate us from everything that is not that label, labels divide and separate. Now consider the label “I’m a Mormon / I’m an ex-Mormon / I’m inactive” as adjectives, it becomes about how we are in life and not what we are. The reality is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t “be” a Mormon, or a Christian, or an anything, because those aren’t “things” to be. We already are something; we’re human. When we learn to view our own labels and perhaps more importantly, the labels we assign to others as adjectives instead of nouns, it will be like talking to someone and realizing that “I am wearing a blue shirt” and “you are wearing a red shirt” but the color of our shirts doesn’t make us who we are, it’s just part of how we are right now at this specific moment in time. Give it a try…Try to start viewing labels (yours and others) as adjectives rather than nouns and see how that changes the way you view yourself and others. How else can labels be detrimental? Share your comments below.