Flipping the Label

We live in a world that uses labels as a means of understanding the people, places, ideas and actions in it. A young toddler is taught that touching the flame on a burning candle is “bad” for example. Student drivers are taught how to make proper lane changes if they want to be “good, responsible” drivers. Sometimes, though, we labor under a label that is just plain negative or has a negative connotation. That’s when labels are not only not useful, but they also can become limiting. Unless we can find a way to see the good in such a label, we may feel burdened by an idea of ourselves that is not accurate—or at the very least is not complete!  It is important to remember that almost nothing in this world is all good or all bad, and most everything is a complex mixture of gifts and challenges. Sometimes our culture prefers some qualities over others, like being thin and attractive, or like being adept in social situations.  The issue is, however, that being thin and attractive can lead to charges of being “superficial” and being shy becomes “antisocial” in that mindset. Having had a drug problem in the past does not, in some recovery circles, remove the label of “addict”—even if the person hasn’t used in a decade.!  I once asked a reovering alcoholic who had been sober for 30 years why he continued to claim that label.  His answer? “Because an alcoholic can never be anything but an alcoholic, up until the day he dies.”  How sad to believe something so negative! Any label has negative and positive sides and when we can see this simple truth we might just be able to give ourselves a break and love ourselves for who we are.

When we look into the lives of any of the great people in history, we always find that they had quirks and eccentricities that earned them less than ideal labels from the societies in which they lived. Many famous artists and musicians were considered to be isolated loners or disruptive troublemakers, yet these people altered history and contributed to the world an original vision or advances in our understanding of the universe. If we can remember this as we examine our own selves and the labels people use to describe us, we may find that there is a bright side to any characterization.

At my SMART Recovery meeting last night, several participants expressed gratitude that we don’t force attendees to claim the labels “alcoholic” or “addict.” The reason is simple: if we self-identify with the negative side of labels only, we will never grow beyond them.  Thoughts held in mind come from core beliefs and if we believe we’re irreparably damaged, we will never become who God wants us to become. The positive side of those particular labels is seen when someone introduces herself as “Sarah, a woman who overcame alcohol” or “Sam, a man who left drugs behind to find happiness.”  Those kinds of statements are more worthy and more honest.  And they’re much closer to identifying ourselves from God’s perspective.

We have all been labeled, so if we can remember to try to reword the label in a positive light, we can gain wisdom and gratitude. For example, others might say we’re “too emotional”, which then makes us feel on the verge of being out of control sometimes. The positive side of that label is that we are courageous enough and willing to share our emotions, even when the world doesn’t always encourage it. Changing the negative interpretation to a positive one can help us begin to perceive some very solid, Christ-centered attributes within ourselves. We may begin to appreciate our innate bravery or our emotional honesty or our willingness to talk about the painful parts of our histories. As we turn our labels around, the light of our true nature in Christ shines to guide us further on our way to God. So if we’ve got that little light of ours, why not let it shine??

(You can sing the song now  I know you want to !)


Fr. Michel


About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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