The Pressure of Definition
On one hand, it’s wonderful to see eyes light up when I’m meeting someone and find that we have something in common. Sharing identifying information about myself can be just that: a way to place me, a shorthand for knowing something about me without my having to explain it.
Which brings me to the hate part of my relationship with labels.
I know what happens in my brain when I hear words like “introvert,” “liturgical,” “feminist,” “stay-at-home-mom” or “homeschooled.” I run those labels through my own life, allowing each conversation, interaction, or experience help me decide what I think about this person standing in front of me (sometimes metaphorically, if I’m reading something). Though I do my best to see that person, and not the compilation of information filed away in my brain, I don’t always succeed.
I often assume.
I do this with people I’m just meeting and friends I’ve known a long time. I do it with myself, and with God.
There is a large part of my soul that is longing to be settled, to be home. There is something beautiful about this, I think, a longing for what is not possible at this point, for the not-yet of this life.
I think that there is a reason for the desert feelings I have so often, moments upon moments of parched longing and dry hope. I write often about the rivers in the desert, and I believe in a God who starts tiny rivulets of water in the middle of the sand, cascading them into streams, and many mighty waters.
But though the desert is blooming and flowing and pleasant to live in, the desert is not home.
When I meet someone new, there is occasionally that feeling of home about them. There is a look or conversation, or feeling of warmth that makes me feel as though I’ve recognized a kindred spirit.
These people are streams in the desert, companions for the journey.
But they are also not home.
If there is anything I have found to be true of life, it is that transition is always present. The cycles of birth and death and growing and moving and changing are permanent in their impermanence.
It takes some getting used to for me to realize that I rarely have the opportunity to get used to anything. The moments slip through my fingers, resisting anything but a moment-long embrace and a quick look over a winged shoulder.
It is so easy for me to see things in others that are equally true about myself, without, of course, seeing that they are true about me. I lamented this for a long time, but recently, I’ve been learning to pay attention to what bothers me and learn from it.
I had a boyfriend who was so pleased when he discovered that I liked Guinness. Once he did, that was my beer. When we would meet somewhere, for dinner, or drinks and he arrived first, I could always expect to find a Guinness waiting for me.
Early on in our relationship, I found this adorable. I loved that he was paying attention to my preferences. Later on, I began to think longingly of ordering a cocktail, a glass of wine, or another kind of beer, if I wanted.
This is what I find hard to love about labels: if I let them, they shut down the conversation. When that boyfriend and I first started dating, we were eager to learn all that we could about each other. For my part, I bought Costco-sized cases of his favorite beers and distributed them as needed. Both of us, in our attempts to be thoughtful, left no room for growth.
When my ideologies, my jobs, or my beer of choice become enmeshed with my personhood, they become dangerous weights which discourage movement.
For years, I’ve been paying attention to my language, trying to eradicate the words “always” and “never” and other line-in-the-sand attitudes, when I speak. I’ve been intentionally embracing the tension of human knowledge, or lack thereof.
I can look back at the archives of this blog, over five years of my voice, and see countless times that my mind has changed. Instead of wishing those past selves away, I am learning to embrace them for what they were: formative and important, impermanent and fleeting.