It looked like just another piece of junk at the yard sale. But I knew better.
For me, as a young boy, it represented the ability to practice word magic.
Soon I was labeling anything within reach with my well-used label maker. Toys, books, furniture, even pictures were soon clearly labeled for anyone who may have been wondering.
Eventually my labels fell off and were forgotten. As I grew, I discovered another kind of labeling method.
As my friends and I labeled each other and our classmates, we used no adhesives, but the labels stuck like super glue.
We thought we were just being helpful. How would people know that Jim was a stoner, that Mary was a snob, that Mike was shy, if we didn’t label them so? We had a label for every characteristic, deformity, or personal challenge. Once applied, the person often became what we had labeled them.
Our word magic was stronger than we realized.
The realization hit me like a freight train at my 20th class reunion. To this day, some still carried the labels we gave them. Sometimes the label eventually fell off, though emotional residue remained.
I’d made a conscious decision to visit with every classmate I could. As we talked, I recognized how terribly I had misjudged or underestimated them. It wasn’t just me — I could see it in their eyes, too.
Our labels had reduced remarkable human beings to mere objects. But our childish labeling couldn’t begin to describe the true depth and value of these individuals.
We couldn’t see them as they really were. In their book, Leadership and Self-Deception, the Arbinger Institute describes this self-deception as “being in the box.” We leaped into the box, and it hurt not just our targets, but us as the labelers.
I wish I knew then what I know now. I would have used my word magic not to reduce and denigrate, but rather to build and uplift.
But I still wonder if I’ve learned my lesson. What will be the lasting effects of the labels I slap on my children through words of frustration and disappointment? How will they begin to see themselves after I perceive them as objects? And what can I inspire them to live up to by seeing them for who they really are?
And my relationship with my children is just the tip of the iceberg.
We can also inflict damage on ourselves by how we label other adults. For instance, when faced with a contrary point of view, how often do we grab our label maker and get to work?
It’s a lot easier to label someone a “right-winger” or a “bleeding-heart liberal” than it is to actually consider his or her point of view and find truth and common ground in it. Labels devalue people and blind us to truth. We may have much to learn from that “left-wing radical” or “tree-hugging hippie” if we remove the label and truly see the person.
Everyone we meet is fighting a private battle. Using word magic to pigeonhole another does nothing to lighten their burden. But an encouraging word at the right moment can provide the necessary spark that kindles a roaring fire of determination in the struggling person’s heart.
Some people may look like just another piece of junk thrown on the trash heap of humanity. But we know better.
Bryan Hyde is a husband, father, disciple, teacher, guardian, reader, writer, truth seeker, stirrer of pots, radio talk show host, and PITA to those who seek dominion over others. He’s also a proud member of the Pro-Freedom Conspiracy.
He does professional voice work through his company One Clear Voice. He is also a frequent and popular contributor to St. George News.
Bryan and his wife Becky are raising their six children in Cedar City, Utah.
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