Do Labels Inform or Conceal?

 

labelsOne definition of a “label” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”

I was reminded of this definition as I read David Brook’s editorial today on “partyism,” a word coined by Cass Sunstein at Harvard to describe discrimination based on political affiliation.  Brooks’s comments were prompted by surveys that indicate that discrimination based on political affiliation is now greater than discrimination based on race.  He noted, for example, a comparison of polling data from 1960 with 2010. In 1960, the percentage of people who indicated they would “be ‘displeased’ if their child married someone from the other party” was about 5 percent for both Republicans and Democrats. By 2010, it has risen to 49 percent for Republicans and 33 percent for Democrats.

Much of Brooks’s article focused on the destructive impact of what he called hyper-moralization (the automatic association of moral and ethical values with party labels) on the political process.  His conclusion, on a higher philosophical plane, is worth repeating:

“This mentality [of hyper-moralization] also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.”

Or, I might add, sexism.

The subject of labels and the damage they do has been a recurrent theme in discussions with book clubs and women’s groups about sexual fluidity as it relates to the same-sex relationship that occurs in my novel, A Fitting Place. I’ve been surprised at the number of women—a relatively small percentage of my audiences, but more than I expected—who flatly reject the notion of sexual fluidity, and insist that any woman who has had a same-sex relationship at some point in her life must be lesbian (or at least bi-sexual) because “a straight woman would never do that.”

When pressed for why they insist on these labels, the typical response boils down to: “Well, I’m straight, and I’d never do it. I just don’t get why any one else would—unless they were gay.”  A few will add that they simply aren’t interested in learning any more about the subject of sexual fluidity or same-sex relationships.

I never cease to be amazed when people assume they can speak for the world at large, based on their own individual experience. But the more disturbing aspect of these responses is that words that seemed descriptive in my college days—words that opened up a discussion about a different approach to sexuality—have become labels that all but eliminate the possibility of talking about diversity of human experience.

In Brooks’s words, these labels—lesbian, bi-sexual and even straight—have the effect of devaluing what is important about one of the most significant lifestyle decision that most of us have to make.

Notwithstanding my comments above, I have to keep reminding myself of the difference between a description that starts a conversation and a label that closes conversation off.

How often do you use “labels” in a way that shuts down the possibility of a conversation?

On Not Being Perfect

 

 

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.                                    ~Anna Quindlen

Being PerfectThe notion that we grow the most—personally, professionally, and spiritually—when we step outside our comfort zone has been central to my life and central to what I have chosen to write about over the last decade.

Quindlen’s message is that much of the heavy lifting in the matter of personal growth comes through the often exhausting, sometimes frightening effort, step by small step, to find a new approach to getting through the day. It requires a conscious effort to step outside our psychological comfort zone as well as our external or environmental one.

. . .

To read more,  check out my blog on Becoming Yourself, a guest post of Gwen Plano’s lovely website “From Sorrow to Joy — Perfect Love.”

 

Being Lost

 

                      Though your destination is not clear                                                                         You can trust the promise of this opening;                                                                 Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning                                                                         That is one with your life’s desire.         ~John O’Donoghue  

 

being lostFor the past week or so, I have been feeling very lost … and it feels wonderful.

It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?  If you accept Webster’s dictionary definition—”unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts”—being lost should be an unpleasant experience.

But from another perspective, being lost is akin to stepping outside your comfort zone. It paves the way for looking at life through a different lens.

So says author and essayist Rebecca Solnit. To Solnit, “Lost [is] mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry. The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live…”

In other words, to get lost is to begin to live.

In my mind’s eye, however, there is a significant difference between being lost and being outside my comfort zone.

When I am outside my comfort zone—something that has happened many times in my life— I am forced to find new ways of coping. But whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant, my inner compass generally tells me where I am and where I want to get to.

By contrast, being lost means that I don’t quite know where I am or where I want to get to, at least metaphorically. I’ve defined myself for the past eight years as a writer.  But can I be a “writer” if I don’t know what I want to write about. I have an idea about a new book, but I’m not committed to it. I have a long list of potential blog topics, many of them linked to themes of my novel, but they don’t inspire me as they did while A Fitting Place was a work-in-process. I’ve done quite a bit of freelancing, but I have little enthusiasm for seeking out new freelance assignments.

Perhaps it’s a simple case of writer’s block.  But it has occurred to me that, as woman on her eighth distinctly different career, I have a history of changing horses on a regular basis.  Has my career as a writer run its course?

Since my novel was released in May, I have filled much of my time with busy-ness: Facebook posts, tweets, Google +, checking stats on book sales, and reading an endless stream of blogs on writing, publishing, and marketing—anything to mask my sense that I had no idea what I wanted to do next.  But then, this past Sunday, as I read Solnit’s words on the link between getting lost and becoming alive, I realized in a burst of insight that not knowing what I want to do next is a gift.

I am healthy and have enough energy to swim a half mile every day.  I share a love with a thoughtful, caring and healthy man. Being lost frees me to travel,  to spend hours reading, to sit and watch the full moon rising over the skyline.

Why, a few months shy of age 70, do I have to have a purpose every day?  Why should I not take joy in the fact of being lost?

The world is, potentially, my oyster.

To be lost is to be fully present  ~Walter Benjamin

From the Perspective of A Reader

 

moral-dilemma-empathic-concernShortly before A Fitting Place came out, a friend asked how I would measure the book’s success.

My answer was unhesitating: I wanted it to prompt readers to re-examine the way in which we all make relationship choices.  I hoped that A Fitting Place would:

  • give readers more empathy and understanding—for themselves and for others—of the way in which circumstances, habitual behavior patterns, and societal stereotypes influence the relationships that we choose, and
  • recognize that every relationship reflects a series of choices that we could have made differently, and that we can change if we ourselves are willing to change and grow.

My first clue that I might achieve my goal came one day last week when a middle-aged acquaintance said, in passing, “I loved your book. But I have to tell you, I wouldn’t have read it if I’d known what it was about.”

Straining to keep my jaw from dropping, I asked, “Why did you read it?”

Sailing Down the Moonbeam was wonderful.  So I bought this when it came out. I never checked to see what it was about.”

My reader went on to say that her religious objections to homosexuality had stopped her from ever thinking about the emotional dynamics of a same sex relationship. When she realized what the book was about, she almost put it down.  “But I had to keep reading. I had to know what happened to Lindsey.”

As the conversation continued, she noted that, unlike Lindsey, she’d had multiple sources of emotional support in the wake of her own failed marriage. But now, my reader could empathize with someone who was emotionally bereft.  “Lindsey was reaching out for a relationship that was supportive and nurturing. I could understand that. It made me realize,” she said, “that I needed to be open to alternative ways of dealing with life.”

I had a virtually identical conversation with a woman in her 70’s a few days later.

I was fortunate that both women were willing to speak so openly with me.  From the book clubs I’ve met with so far, I know they are not the first readers to object to the same sex love affair on religious or social grounds.  But they were the first to acknowledge that A Fitting Place pushed them to think differently and even empathetically.  And because these two women were willing to “step outside their comfort zone,” they understood that A Fitting Place was about relationships, not about sex.

On a related note, I’ve had a lot of readers—and reviewers— refer to A Fitting Place as “a page turner” or say that “I couldn’t put it down.”  To my delight, I’ve heard repeated stories of readers who planned to peruse “just one more chapter,” but stayed up into the wee small hours or went to work late in order to finish the book.

A Fitting Place seems to be a good read as well as a thought-provoking book.

For a writer, that has to count as success!