Column: We Are So Much More Than Labels

By Icy Frantz

I sat down the other day at my kitchen table, looking out at a rather non-descript winter landscape, intending to begin my new writing project. A longer project than I have attempted before; my story, autobiography, individual history, a memoir.

Taking the advice from some of my more experienced writer friends, I had blocked out a chunk of time in my planner, marking off a two-hour time slot with a big “x”. It was just me, my yellow legal pad, and a black, felt-tipped pen. I had no preconceived message I wanted to convey. I had no outline. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was doing and sat waiting for a mystical moment, a breath of inspiration to magically pass through me. When nothing struck, I began by writing a brief author’s bio. I figured that was a good place to start.

After a short time, I read the words staring up at me from the page. They were accurate, rudimentary, and basic in nature, and they were bland and tiresome. I was attempting to give the future reader of my book a sense of the author. Instead, I was providing the perfect prescription for a good night’s sleep.

I had provided a list of labels: middle-aged, woman, wife, mother, Christian, white, volunteer, Republican, suburban housewife (even I was bored) and these facts left to stand alone only tell a piece of my story. These labels lack the depth and color and richness that characterize all of our lives.

I love reading autobiographies in particular, and I admire those authors with the ability to tell their story skillfully. I love to travel right alongside the author, word by word, chapter by chapter, digesting the author’s unique journey and the way in which the events of their life unfold. I appreciate the accomplishments or struggles through adversity and I identify with the heartaches and celebrate the victories and empathize and question and learn. I am completely intrigued by people and their stories.

The handful of labels I had assigned myself evoked none of this, told so little of my story, and left me feeling defensive. I know I am so much more than the words staring up at me.

Labels are limiting. They lead us to make assumptions that are too often incorrect and misleading. Our past experiences can lead to prejudice and bias, and we make judgments about labels that are often false. Labels provide us with a foothold from which to jump in and begin discovering, but we need to make that leap in order to get to the much richer narrative.

Visiting my mother last week, she mentioned the fact that she had been to Iceland on many occasions, but only to the airport on a journey to some other far away land. She sat at a gate at Keflcvik International airport many times, she bought water at a kiosk there, but she had never cleared customs and stepped outside into the Icelandic air. She regretted that she had never visited the blue lagoon or seen the northern lights or the puffin birds or the massive glaciers. She had never leapt off. And for me, labels create the same kind of obstacle. They leave us stuck at that airport gate, preventing us from experiencing the depth and the culture and the real treasures that the world has to offer.

Labels are divisive. They keep us separated and apart, and that is a real shame. We joke that it’s not proper to talk about religion or politics for fear of disagreement or contrary views, but in fact, that is exactly what we need to be doing. We applaud diversity for all the wrong reasons. Institutions boast about their diverse number of labels. Numbers? What we should be boasting about is deep character and value and respect and understanding, as well as the ability to have the difficult conversations around race and religion and politics and gender.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Martin Luther King Jr. knew all too well that an ideal world cares not about labels but rather deeply for what is beneath.

I do not know what it’s like to worry about a son going out at night dressed in a hoodie into a neighborhood made up of people of another color or what it feels like to be mocked for my sexual identity or to be feared because I am wearing a burka. But, I want to try. I want to dive deep and understand, and I want to search for what’s beneath the skin color, the orientation, the religion, the political belief. I won’t deny my ignorance, nor my interest in learning. I know my heart and I know I am not alone.

I look again at the bleak winter landscape and focus more carefully on my surroundings. The bland backdrop has slowly faded, revealing intricate elements that I had originally missed. A hawk is perched high on a leafless branch and the tree is slowly dancing in the cold breeze. Off in the distance, the coast is lined with waterfront homes, seemingly asleep in the quiet of midwinter. Docks and rocks greet the sound water, stilled by the frigid temperatures, and a light dusting of snow begins to cover the infertile lawn like a patchwork quilt.

Beauty is exposed in the details. Our world begins at the airport doors and cannot be valued from within the gates. Our true souls are not fully realized in our color, our sex, or our religion. They wait to be discovered beneath the surface. A good memoir is an invitation to engage and explore and understand another’s personal experiences giving us a deeper understanding of our own. Don’t stop at labels. Don’t let assumptions about them mislead you. Take the leap and discover the unique and wonderful stories behind them, the stories that make up our lives.

Wouldn’t it be a shame to miss that?