You're More Than Peanut Butter
I sent my final email. I’d spent the morning “working” out of the Washington D.C. West End Library. It was 1:43 pm.
I’d been to D.C. before, but when I was younger. No, not on one of those school trips. It was a summer family vacation. I think there was an amusement park involved. I don’t remember much.
Anyway, I loaded up my google maps walking route with stops: The Lincoln Memorial, Congress, The White House, The National Mall. My father told me how impressive the Smithsonian’s are, and that they’re free. Add those to the list. I was unimpressed by The National Gallery of Art and after walking out followed the arrows to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Is that a life-size Bush Elephant in the lobby? Let’s stay here. I self-guided myself through the Oceans exhibit, The Butterfly Room, and the Bones exhibit showcasing the skeletons of the animals we see on safari, and into the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.
Here, I learned that all of today’s humans have a 99.9% DNA match with each other, with most variations coming from within a population and representing only a difference in geographic ancestry.
2019 Instagram caption translation: We’re all the same. We’re all the same, and at the same time, so divided.
As a human race, I admire how creative we are.
Over time we’ve organized a collection of frameworks for how we should live. Most of the time, I trust that they are well-intentioned.
However, I am not blind to the ideologies that threaten others, drive divisions, and only deliver a best life for those preaching them. But, even those who push these dangerous agendas forward must be greeted with curiosity. It’s with this response that we can understand what they desire, or since these more radical ideas stem from fear, what is threatening them?
Are we too afraid, too proud, to ask these questions?
In debate, we don’t seek to understand, we shout our beliefs louder in an effort to drown out the opposition. In conversation, we don’t listen to learn, we simply wait to respond. In community, what is foreign or unfamiliar is not invited in to educate us, but identified as a threat to our way of life. It’s as if, we’ve devolved into destabilizing each other instead of getting to know each other. If this doesn’t resonate or apply to you and you always lead conversations with curiosity and openness, stop reading now. (But I know you won’t because you’re curious.)
When we are so focused on preserving the self, we eliminate the opportunity for our differences, codes, ideologies, and beliefs, to unite us. This absence of curiosity ferments fear and drives division. What’s left in the wake then, are groups of individuals that have self-selected themselves into teams based on their shared belief that an ideology is absolutely true and therefore that other beliefs are invalid and not true. These groups are easily identified using labels.
When someone asks you “What are you?”, how do you reply? What labels do you identify with?
Do you say: I’m Jewish, I’m Female, I’m a Democrat, I’m Italian, I’m Muslim, I’m Black, I’m a Teacher?
When someone asks you “What are you?” — is it with your religion, your gender, your current political preference, the country where your grandparents are from, the shade of your skin color, or your profession, that you respond?
When someone asks you “What are you?” — have you ever answered without including your religion, your gender, your current political preference, the country where your grandparents are from, the shade of your skin color, or your profession?
If not, what words would you choose to fill your alternate response?
Person: “What Are You?”
My response: “I’m a young adult that really enjoys building out ideas, investing in my complete wellness, and, at the moment, using my energy and skills to amplify the speed at which others reach their dreams. I’m also a tea-drinker, meditator, bike-rider, writer, and grocery store explorer.” Yeah, it’s fucking weird but it’s who I am. It’s a response that doesn’t alienate a person or population, it’s familiar, relatable, and funny. It’s unique. It’s original. It’s a response that develops conversation. It’s an invitation, not a segregator.
And when I say weird, that’s actually a lazy adjective. What I mean is that it’s new. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not widely in practice.
Consider an introductory conversation that relies on labels. The script is usually: name, [insert label here], profession, and home location. Redundant. Boring. Elementary. A conversation pattern without discovery. A conversation pattern with an expiration date.
It’s not that we don’t possess curiosity, it’s just that we seldom exercise it. A void that robs us of developing new relationships. We’ve let our reliance on labels interfere with our formation of community. I respect that some people may truly feel that a single label appropriately defines them, but we are more than our labels. We are the actions that associate us with a group, we are the beliefs, we are the code of conduct, but to define the self through a single label strips an individual of what makes them original, even within a group. Defining who we are by a singular label is a reduction of who we are. It makes us dependent on the actions of the group we’ve identified with when our truth is that we are unique individuals.
What I’ve observed is that the labels have become weaponized. Opposition so often recycles labels to justify why they have armed themselves against a group. If you are X, and I am Y, then because you are X, I will treat you like this. With this scenario, updating the pattern of our conversations is progress, however minimal, and the true work must be done in our hearts and minds.
We often create narratives for strangers, without knowing their story. We use generalizations and stereotypes to support the grouping of individuals by label, based only on visual information. These premature narratives are assigned in our mind without any collection of information. If we are to accelerate our progress as a culture, we must halt the distribution of these labels and replace these conclusions with curiosity.
Consider the following:
When you see a person on a sidewalk without shoes, a sunburnt face, frayed pants that drag on the pavement, pushing a shopping cart with 3 full trash bags, what are they to you?
Let’s be honest, your first thought is homeless. A label. But who are they really? First, you do not know if they are indeed homeless. Second, even if true, you do not know the conditions that have delivered them to this temporary state of less fortune. The mental process of arriving at your accurate or inaccurate labeling of this person has robbed you of a beautiful interaction. Maybe that person, if asked “What are you?” would say, “I’m a stranger to most, invisible to some, but in truth, I am an explorer constantly discovering the kindness of strangers, and nourishing my own gratitude practice.” Now expand this.
If you see a woman in a hijab, yes they are practicing their Muslim faith in accordance with the words of the Qur’an instructing women to dress modestly, but what does this really tell us? It simply suggests they believe in accordance with a certain group of guiding principles, that’s it. It doesn’t tell us anything more about them. But curious conversation would.
You greet the person delivering your Amazon prime package. Yes, they work for Amazon, but that’s not who they are. You do not know that they are a student, working 20 hours a week to pay tuition as they major in Chemistry and work towards earning a scholarship for Medical School, where they plan to research cures for Colon Cancer, a diagnosis carried by their grandfather.
When allowing our mind to assign labels to individuals, we strengthen stereotypes and restrict the possibilities of who a person can be. The truth is, we’ve placed too significant a value on labels, and use them to arrive at generalized conclusions. It is impatient and lazy. At best, they offer us one piece of information about a person. In a world without labels, we would see more complete people. In a world without labels, we would naturally update our default to one of curiosity.
At times writing this, I questioned my intention: Am I attempting to be controversial?
Popular media has used labels to drive division, create fear, and destroy community. But popular media itself is not this powerful. It simply starts there. We, the consumers, have taken these labels and carried them with us: in our minds, in our conversations, in our actions, cementing this division. When writing this I wanted first to call attention to this empirical truth.
Second, I want to invite those who self-identify with a label to see that they are more. Their story may begin with a label, but it does not end there. It’s the life we build on top of our assigned labels that defines who we are.
Labels have a utility. They help those with an allergy distinguish peanut butter from almond butter, homeowners to tell toilet paper from paper towels, and gardeners indoor plants from outdoor plants. But, to subject humans to this same grouping process for ease of navigation is unfair. We are more than labels. We are more than peanut butter. If you have a response to this piece, know that I welcome it with curiosity, and I’d love to engage with you through the comments. My only ask is that you sign your response with who you are, without using your name or labels.
A young adult that really enjoys building out ideas, investing in my complete wellness, and, at the moment, using my energy and skills to amplify the speed at which others reach their dreams. I’m also a tea-drinker, meditator, bike-rider, writer, and grocery store explorer.
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