God doesn’t call me to judge you. God calls me to love you. ~Joel Osteen
I’ve been thinking about labels and reactions to labels. We sometimes reject the whole concept of labels, because they are often used to limit, or to divide “us” from “them.” We use them to dismiss, to separate, to stereotype, to discriminate, to judge. In the United States, we are all too painfully aware of the damaging and tragic use of labels based on race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disability.
So is the answer to throw out all the labels? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe the problem isn’t with the label itself but with how we use it.
For example, my son James is autistic. When he was a boy, he was mainstreamed in a regular classroom. His behavior seemed odd to other children. The children who tried to talk to him or include him in play were confused by behavior they didn’t understand. They were sometimes even afraid of him. They stayed away from him.
I made a decision to give them information, to use a label and explain it. Every year, near the beginning of the year, the teacher and I would arrange for someone to come in and talk to the kids about autism. James was not present for these discussions so that the kids could freely ask questions.
Without exception, once the kids had some knowledge, they showed tremendous acceptance and compassion. They went out of their way to include James.
Towards the end of his last year at that school, the PE department put on a presentation, showcasing the skills that the kids had learned. It was all very impressive, and the parents’ applause was constant. Then it was James’s turn. He started across the stage but then hesitated. Everyone got just quiet enough for me to hear one of the kids near him encourage him. “You can do it, James.” James tucked his head and did a crooked somersault. He stood up beaming. The whole gym erupted in applause. Tears were streaming down my face.
Labels don’t have to divide us. They can invite us in. Knowing that someone is from a different country, or practices a different religion, or is of a different ethnicity can be an invitation to get to know that person. We can be curious instead of judgmental. We can be welcoming instead of fearful. We can celebrate our differences, and in doing so, we can move past all labels and find our common ground.
Enjoy this short video of a dog who sees past labels.
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