The Nonsense of Labels
Can you see it? The list of all the things people say you are?
I can see it. I see the list of all the things people think I am, all the things people call me.
And I’m going to blow it up.
Over ten years ago, I spent a summer at a camp in New Hampshire. Among the beautiful trees and idyllic school campus, I registered in a photography course. I walked around snapping photos of the small town’s curtain-bearing movie theater, our bus trips to the Boston Commons, and even the cover art for a friend’s first music album. His gigantic Texan belt buckle dominated the image.
Over the following five weeks, I spent countless hours in the dark room learning how to bring my photos to life. Back then, I carted my Walkman with me everywhere, Dave Matthews Band’s “Grey Street” blaring in my headphones. It was this very song on repeat that kept me company during my long hours in the dark room.
Years later, I still take photos and post them on Instagram, but I never again stepped into a dark room. Sure, modern day photography doesn’t require them anymore, but the dark room was my favorite part of that entire summer.
I miss the dark room. I miss taking photos that matter — the kind you really think about while you’re taking them. I miss marveling at the image as it floated up from the ether onto the paper.
I miss that process of creation.
Do I want to go back to it somehow, to taking photos that matter? Sure. Am I going to become a photographer? No.
There’s an entire ocean between the two, a chasm that most of us fail to even recognize.
What are you?
I can think of a handful of words I’ve heard people use to describe me:
But now it’s time for the next step.
Today, I’m gathering all those things people think I am into a neat little bundle, packing them into the dirt with a grenade, and blowing them into oblivion.
Because they’re words — just words — but they pack a punch that may or may not be deserved. They’re labels.
Labels don’t serve anyone. They exist to simplify that which is complex — and complexity can be beautiful.
Especially when you consider that your behaviors do not entirely make up our identities. What we do is not who we are. We can separate ourselves from our behaviors, activities, and experiences.
Let’s look at a negative example first. In the words of Dr. Brené Brown,
“There’s a significant difference between you ARE bad and you DID something bad. And, no, it’s not just semantics. Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can do and be better.”
When you translate that to a more positive example, it looks something like this:
- I’m not a writer. But I do write sometimes.
- I’m not an entrepreneur. But I do work on my own sometimes.
- I’m not independent. But I do like to hole up with my computer sometimes.
- I’m not a home-body. But I do like staying home sometimes.
- I’m not super efficient. But I do get things done sometimes.
Those things do not define me, but they do describe me. Sometimes.
So, what are you?
When you think about what people think you are, what comes to mind?
What about what you think about yourself?
Labels don’t just come from the outside. The labels you’re applying to yourself, the ones that stem from your internal space, also paint you into a corner. It’s that very corner that I want to get out of. It’s left us full of dust and cobwebs, as if we’re not an ever-changing version of ourselves.
For most of you, a long list of words / judgements / professions / hobbies are bubbling to the surface of your mind. But they’re just labels. Labels that you can swat away as quickly as 1-2-3.
You’re free to walk away from the labels in your life.
You’re free to rip up the list of labels that have been applied to you.
You’re free to stop associating with the name-tag-like words that have been assigned to you over the years.
You’re free to be and do what you please.
Will I become a photographer? No. Will I take more photos I care about? I hope so.
Will I go back to the dark room? Probably not. But I can recreate what I felt in there.
Will I stop playing up to the labels that other people have assigned to me? You better believe it.
More on that next time…
Wishing you awesomeness from my very humid office in Managua!