Thursday, March 6, 2008

Loving Without Labeling

As children, my parents affixed labels to my siblings and me that in some ways have followed us to this day. I was the responsible high achiever. My sister was the hard-working peacemaker. My brother was the funny, perceptive, sensitive one. While there's nothing particularly problematic with these labels, it did sometimes lead to discounting our other traits that fell outside our respective boxes. If my sister brought home a good report card, my parents would credit her "hard work" for her success rather than her intellect. If I got a bad grade, the teacher must not have communicated her/his concepts and expectations well enough. And my brother, well, he got by on his sense of humor.

In families and other significant relationships, it's easy to slide into this essentialist view. We've all done it: "She's my easy baby." "He's the stubborn one." "He's the helpful one--not like his brother." The difficulty with essentialist notions is that sometimes there is truth to them--or maybe "truthiness" is a better term. But what happens is that these essentialist views often cloud out exceptions.

My brother can be very funny, but I know that when tax time comes around, he sends his 1040 meticulously filled out--all joking aside. My sister is a hard-worker, but she often gets more done because she also works smarter. And she loves to put her feet up and crack a joke as much as anyone.

Our behavior is just that--behavior. Sometimes it suggests something about our temperment. But it shouldn't define us. And we should be watchful not to let it coax us into defining others, too.

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