How Losing Labels Can Resuscitate Society.
The average American labels him or herself so many times a day that they would most likely lose count before they break fast. Some of us attach more titles to ourselves than we even realize. It can be a useful exercise to jot down, in your phone or on paper, what you call yourself throughout the day. Take note of what comes after the phrase, “I’m the kinda guy that…” or “I like to think of myself as…” Theoretically you could write these things down for a day or two and read them back to yourself, but I believe most people would get the point after a few hours. These are much more powerful statements than we give them credit. When we say these things about ourselves we are quite literally shaping both the way we want others to perceive us, and what we see in the proverbial mirror. Far, far too often that image carries a negative connotation, and I do not see it as a coincidence.
We define ourselves in ways that come across as more of a sales pitch than an introduction. It is as if we have to convince people that they need to buy into what we, as a person, are selling. We have been conditioned by our societal guards – family, friends, teachers, preachers, media socialites – to react to, rather than think about, how we define ourselves. “I am an extroverted, dog loving foodie who will wait in line for two hours for a pre-happy hour boozy brunch!” Obviously, I am making a light-hearted example. In all honesty, I have no idea what extroverts enjoy.
This is by no means an indictment on any single person, or group of people. I only wanted to move your mind onto the path in which this essay will be walking. Yes, some of them are funny or ridiculous, and often the strings of labels people pin to themselves can be ironic. Much of the time we are attaching ourselves to a multitude of concepts without even realizing it. I will not be pointing any fingers, passing blame, or telling you how to live your life; but, I will present some practices that have helped me become a happier person without the need for labels or titles. My wish is that, as a result of this essay, some will become more mindful of how they are presenting themselves to, and separating themselves from those nearly biologically identical beings that surround us.
We live in a society of subcultures. People go to great lengths, and spend tremendous amounts of time, money, and energy to categorize themselves into certain subgroups. I have heard people state loud and proud that they are a “hardcore conservative” or “extremely liberal,” and I wonder why someone would want to peg themselves as such. Not necessarily because I disagree with their beliefs or values, but because it seems unnecessary. Boldly declaring one’s political stance is one of the single most polarizing statements a person can make. By doing so they immediately set up borders and boundaries to communication. They are basically telling those around them that they are so fundamentally indoctrinated in one political corner that their minds can never be changed. Almost instantaneously people begin to associate them with certain brands of literature, music, personalities, and entertainment media.
The use of political affiliation is just one generic example. The actual number of ways people separate themselves from others is higher than I am capable of calculating. How many times have you met someone and their first question is, “What do you do?” This seemingly benign inquiry into the personal affairs of another often invokes discomfort in one, if not both, parties. The question has become a way of socially sizing up another person, and is hardly representative of what they offer as a living being. An example of this would be someone introducing him or herself as “CEO of Soulless Widget Corp.” to establish that they are clinging to a higher rung on the slimy social ladder. What people tend to forget is that ladders leading to nowhere leave you lying on your face; furthermore, our current social structure is set up more like a hamster wheel anyway.
Another thing people have either forgotten, or have never been taught, is that we are allowed to have differing opinions and still be effective communicators. We are allowed to listen politely to an alternative point of view and not change our own. When people are on social media sites they are rarely looking at pages or pictures that differ from their own beliefs, and they would have to put forth some effort to do so. The demographic algorithms are so good at keeping people in their lanes that some do not realize that there is an opposing viewpoint. Others are not aware that the algorithms exist, and some, few I hope, do not even know that demographers exist.
Demographers are paid very well, over $50,000/year on average, to keep people separated into discernible groups. Of course what initially comes to mind is the US Census, but these people also make it possible to intensify the focus of targeted advertising. I have heard countless people say that they refuse to be “just a number.” What those people are ignoring is that the numbers are compiled behind the scenes, and they are accumulated from almost every daily activity. Those boots you were looking at Tuesday popping up in an advertisement on Friday. The self-checkout register at the grocery store spewing coupons for things you repeatedly purchase. While these are trivial examples, the point is that no matter how much you want to believe that you are more than a number in a consumerist society, our actions are being recorded with ones and zeros at every turn, and we have little say in the matter. Furthermore, the effort by ad men to create lifelong consumers of children is gruesome.
Much of this is so ingrained in the American culture that we do not give it thought. Kids are taught at an early age that being unique is a good thing, but upon closer examination it becomes clear that this is little more than lip service. Rather than nourishing the eccentricities of children, they are usually grouped together in traditional ways with which people are familiar: “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” Obviously this is an oversimplification, and I apologize for the cookie cutter reference, but I wanted to provide an example of how labels are hidden in plain sight.
Many will see these labels as a normal part of growing up, but I find them to be dangerous. Not necessarily physically harmful, but dangerous in the regard that designating people to a particular way of life often limits, or at least restricts, the level and depth of communication we have with one another. People often make snap judgements about those around them that rarely hold true. We are all guilty of shunning potential conversations with someone who appears to have a radically different opinion. Admittedly, I would most likely have a great level of difficulty in initiating a conversation with a person donned in their favorite flag and absolutely oozing nationalist fervor. It is easy, and lazy, to discriminate solely on the basis of physical appearance, but we are all capable.
While this sounds like common sense, all it takes is one honest moment of introspection to realize that, at some point or another, we have all chosen to check our phone or look at some non-existent spectacle in the sky to avoid making eye contact with a real life human being walking past us on the sidewalk. These preconceived notions could well be stifling the very intellectual stimulation that we need most. The point is this: staying inside our comfort zone is the quickest way to stagnate personal growth.
This gross lack of communication with those of opposing opinion has put everyone in a sort of make-believe bubble. So much so that we have begun to think that what we hold dear is everything that is, has been, or ever will be. People lack a basic level of foresight that would allow them to see a world without suffering. The fact that all we have ever been taught has been based on fear has led us to believe that that is all there can be. Many people will scoff at the idea of a world without hunger, war, poverty; however, just because you cannot see something does not mean that it is not there. The human eye is incapable of seeing infrared light, but no one disputes its existence.
All these illusory cultural divisions do nothing but blind us to the scientific fact that we are, biologically speaking, far more similar than different. As if ethnicity and race were not enough, we now attempt to separate ourselves based on everything from music and literature to the applications on our instantaneously obsolete smartphones: iPhone or Android. We should all make some attempt to connect with those around us, and that starts by reconnecting with ourselves.
Consider unplugging for a while. Turn off the telescreen and go outside without your headphones. Better yet, leave your phone at home. Rip yourself away from your favorite convenience. Initiate conversation with a complete stranger: maybe even give them a compliment. Volunteer in your community: even when it is not court ordered. Allow your dog to walk you through nature, and while you are out there, allow your mind to wander. Look up at the sky rather than down at your shoes or boots. Try to look at the world around you with your own eyes instead of through the jaded goggles that society has supplied you.
Despite what talking heads on TV screens will tell you, we are allowed to do more than just survive this life. We are designed to thrive. If you are unhappy, there is a reason. Searching for that reason may bring up some uncomfortable truths about the level of control you have had over your life, but at least at that point the choice will be yours. You will be astonished at how much fun life is when you get rid of the idea that things have to turn out a certain way. We cannot always control the things that happen to us; therefore, our lives are not defined by circumstance; on the contrary, our lives are defined by how we react to those circumstances.
It would be naive to think that all our problems are going to be solved quickly, but the first step in finding a lost path is to stop going in the wrong direction. Rather than letting trivial descriptors separate us from one another, let us use these things creatively to build up ourselves and our communities. Stop using subsections of society as stepping stones. Live life on your terms, and not those imposed on you by a parasitic culture of consumerism. I have no doubt that Henry David Thoreau would have no problem with me paraphrasing his timeless words when I say “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!”
I would like to end this essay by saying from me – a spiritual inclined, olympic weightlifting, plant eating, intermittent fasting, bicycle riding, reggae rocking, backpack toting, tattooed, smiling string of adjectives – to you, I hope you are happier than you have ever been. If not, I hope that someday you may realize that your happiness rests in your hands. We can change anything about ourselves at any point in time. It is a matter of choice, not chance. Be grateful for what you have. Always give more than you take. Create your own happiness. Bring no harm to yourself. Bring no harm to others. Live life with purpose, and try asking yourself, “What’s the BEST that could happen?!”