Our dependence on labels is killing us, figuratively and literally.
“Flyover states”. “Coastal elites”. “Country hicks”. “Urban war-zones”.
When we fail to see our dependence on labels, when we dehumanize someone and divest them of the totality of their life experience and their worth through arbitrary categorization, we in-turn dehumanize ourselves. We let tribalism and fear rule our interactions in lieu of humanity and reason.
Reason is the sum-total of humanity’s evolution to-date. Reasoning grants us vision, but without empathy it remains cold logic. For progress to continue, we must come to understand that reason, empathy, and ultimately love are inextricably linked.
We deserve to exist beyond our labels, completely visible in our totality. We deserve to stand at our full heights, arms wide and eyes fixed upon the horizon.
We all deserve more than the sum of fear—which is no sum at all.
We deserve to be more than our labels, as does the rest of the world. If we can start by dismissing our labels and peering beyond them, even just a little, we will have shifted our perspectives. And maybe—just maybe, that’s what we all need.
It’s the end of summer. I can feel the days getting shorter. The darkness at night at this latitude is both isolating and soothing. I think I’m becoming more okay with being myself. I feel less anxious walking down the street. I can look strangers in the eyes and smile at them. The gulf between my chin and my chest grows and feels more “normal” with each passing day.
I’m able to let things go in ways that I wasn’t able to before. A constant stream of questions keeps entering my thoughts when I get stressed out: “Will this matter in an hour? What about a day? A week? A month?” When the answers present themselves, I’m not just looking outward at the frustration. I turn inward. Reflective. Why was I frustrated to begin with? Was it because I was projecting my expectations on someone? Most of the time, it’s my expectations getting in the way of just letting the person be who they are. An overriding need to “fix” people or situations would wind-up blowing-up in my face. I’m finding it easier to offer moral support and ask for permission to give advice than to be prescriptive.
I’m figuring out ways to let people be themselves—and that includes me. Rather than being so focused on other people’s perceptions, I’m re-learning how to be me. I’m busy again with the work of loving who I am as opposed to trying to appeal to others. Either people will like me or they won’t. To quote one of my favorite books, “The Rock Warrior’s Way”:
“A warrior is a realist. He realizes that, in an absolute and external sense, he is no more or less valuable than any other human being. Outside factors, such as other people’s opinions, change capriciously in response to complex agendas. They are not reliable sources of self-worth because they are here one day and gone the next. A warrior knows that the functional, day-to-day value of life and of acts must be decided personally, internally.”
I am having to learn and re-learn that the ultimate measure of my life isn’t the length or depth, but the width of it. If I am living from a place of joy, of contentment, and I am able to be myself without compromise or negativity of belief, then I am living as fully as I am able to. So much time spent on trying to feel as though I am complete, never quite “making it”. Because I never felt as though I was enough. That I would never be “enough”. That there wasn’t anything I could do to be enough. Figuring that out has been problematic and painful, but day-by-day it’s becoming easier.
What is your number? What is the floating-point number of “chits” you owe someone else?
When you think about what was bought with that number, does it make you happy? Does it fill you with anxiety? How much did that ski trip cost exactly? Was that over-priced latte worth it?
The next time you go to swipe that slice of plastic, consider this: who will you be paying interest to on that purchase, and for how long? How many hours of your life will you have to give up to pay it back?
There’s this pernicious falsehood that’s been promulgated through our society for longer than I can remember. It permeates our culture and impacts us all in ways that we seldom think about. That somehow “being chosen” is better than choosing oneself. It’s everywhere: in our workplaces, in our schools, our religious institutions, and even our family systems. That without the window-dressings of title or some behavior of merit worthy of recognition, our worthiness is somehow in question.
I sometimes get static from well-meaning people about treating everyone as individually special and worthy in their own way. As if devaluing someone using arbitrary criteria is itself worthy of merit. Or the argument against any kind of encouragement or individual valuation devolving into some permutation of the phrase “when everyone gets a trophy, no one wins”.
I’m not against awards or special recognition for merit. On the contrary: more power to them. Do the big things. Be the important person and the rock-star. But recognizing that there is silent desperation and invisible toil that goes on every day is itself a blessing and a curse. When I’m able to see that someone is doing something that I myself wouldn’t want to do, I thank them. I recognize them and try to give them a smile when I can, because sometimes it’s all I’ve got.
That being said, there are billions of people waiting to “be chosen”. Whatever that means. Instead of doing the one thing that they already have within their power, they’ve abdicated responsibility to someone else. A power-broker, a manager, a committee, a partner, a family member—whoever it happens to be.
Everyone has the power to choose themselves. To not just say to themselves, but prove to themselves that they are worthy and that they are loved (even if it’s just themselves). Waiting for someone else to make that choice for you is a sure-fire way to ensure that you’ll be left disappointed.
Maybe our definition of “happiness” is wrong.
Maybe our civilization confuses material success with outward expressions of life satisfaction.
Maybe there’s a depth to the definition of “happy” that we have not yet plumbed. Maybe that’s why so many of us feel confused and unhappy when we’re forced to question it.
If the definition of happiness is superficial, then maybe what we need is a different definition. Maybe a different word entirely.
“Self-actualized” is too clinical. “Content” sounds kitschy. Finding the right social shorthand that gives adequate context to this kind of feeling isn’t easy.
Maybe that’s the point.
It’s not that I feel more than most people, I’m just more willing to feel it. I’m not more nuanced or practiced at placing myself in someone else’s proverbial shoes or position, I just more willing to do it.
Why am I willing to place myself in positions of vulnerability? Why am I placing a greater importance on listening and empathizing than action?
Because that’s where the magic is. It’s been my experience that being honest and vulnerable with someone gives them the space to do the same. When that person feels as though they can stand at their full height, unencumbered by preconceived notions about who they are or what is expected of them, that’s when the person can be the most real.
Engaging in the kinds of connection that expose flaws in our thinking, grants us a different perspective, or challenges long-held beliefs is paramount to our growth. When we have these opportunities to grow in ways that we normally wouldn’t when left to our own devices, why wouldn’t we?
I’ve spent the better part of the last week coming back to reality from vacation. I met so many wonderful people and had such deep experiences that I’ve found myself trying to find ways to make the positive and challenging aspects of my time away a permanent fixture in my life.
Something that I’ve been wrestling with is the notion that at one point in my life, I “knew” intrinsically that my job wasn’t my life and that the axiom that “I am not my job” was true. What I hadn’t accounted for was being confronted with that idea so clearly. It hit me like a Clue-By-Four to the face on the last day of my vacation before driving back to Boston that I was experiencing such a strong disconnect between what I did for work and what ultimately made me happy. For example, I have spent an inordinate amount of time seeking attention and validation through the work that I do and getting gratification from it because that was the only place in my life where I felt as though I was accomplished. If I could get to the bottom of a tough technical problem, I was worthy. Not a great way to measure myself, but at the time it was the only thing that really mattered to me.
In contrast, after being around other men this past week whose journeys and struggles closely mirror my own, being vulnerable with those same men about those challenges, and being unconditionally supportive and supported deeply touched me. Despite our differences in life experience and beliefs, there were wonderful men that were able to hold space for me and with me. I can’t say enough about how grateful I am to have had such an experience. It really turned the proverbial mirror on myself and gave me something to look at and think about.
Right now I find myself focused on the notion that my worth has been too heavily invested in things that are outside of my control or aren’t actually reflective of my own intrinsic worth as an individual. I spend a lot of time focusing on the physical, practical aspects of living in this world and not enough on the more abstract impact of my actions or my presence. I’m beginning to notice that I’m not as focused on visibility or active approval of my performance or behavior at work or in the climbing gym. I’m happier just trying and learning new things, whether it’s in code or on the wall. I’m a bit happier being the weird and quirky person that I know myself to be. I can listen to rock and metal, speak my truth about my life experiences while wearing a rainbow sarong, and talk about superheroes and sci-fi until the heat-death of the universe. I can talk about sexuality, HugOps, and my interest in future technology without missing a beat. I can tell you about the last Asimov book I read and how much I loved The Martian and Snow Crash before moving on to talking about how much I miss snowboarding and climbing outside on real stone. I’m not weird, I’m just me.
It’s been difficult for me to really own that. I’ve spent so long being the outsider and being rejected for what I like, who I am, and what my life is like. I spent more time trying to dodge questions and fabricate some kind of image rather than be comfortable with who I am. I’d also felt as though I really didn’t have a “right” to feeling that way about myself, as if such a thing was nothing more than an exercise in vanity.
It’s taken me quite a while to get to this point in my life. I’m annoyed that it’s taken this long, but I’m grateful that it’s happening at all.