For someone who resists labels, I sure wear a lot of them: (bad) daughter, (poor) lawyer, (struggling) business owner, (unpaid) speaker, (textbook) enabler, (good) coach, (fake) mediator, (unpublished) writer, (disobedient) patient, etc. Notice how we add qualifiers to the labels we use. Or for you grammar geeks like my adorable playmate/partner, we add adjectives to the nouns. I’ll blame my elementary school teachers for my participation in this habit, as they taught me that adjectives make my story-telling more interesting. I do like a good story, and I want you to be interested, but I have sometimes taken that desire a bit too far. It’s not that I lie; I’m a terrible liar who my mom grounded several times because she could see through my “poker face.” (I’m no Lady Gaga or Johnny Chan.) So, I gave it up and put my energy elsewhere. Apparently, that “elsewhere” was on what I thought were necessary details that added their own interest and explained everything about me.
I thought I was being helpful, if not wise, in telling you who I was so you wouldn’t fill in the blanks. What I’ve learned is what I’ve heard over and over but will probably forget (or resist) and have to learn again: I am biased by my own perspectives, and what I think is necessary, interesting or explanatory might be clutter, boring or common knowledge to you. I wear many of my labels like badges of honor, and sometimes I use them as armor. You might think I’m crazy for letting anyone see them–which is probably why I pretend that I don’t like labels. Then, I pull the back off and slap another on.
The truth is that I’m afraid which labels you will put on me. I completely forget that I can take them off if I don’t like them. Instead, I imagine you carving them in my skin like blood tattoos that will scar me forever.
I suddenly remember Hal Elrod‘s mantra: “Can’t change it.” Hal lay in a hospital bed with multiple broken bones, a swollen body, a sutured scalp, and a re-attached ear after dying for six minutes as a result of a multi-vehicle traffic accident. Yet that mantra was a source of power, even in a moment that would devastate others. He knew he could accept what he could not change and work with his circumstances (what Buddhists call “radical acceptance”) or he could focus on what shouldn’t be and spend all of his energy wishing his life was different.
Hal was told he might never walk again, and he accepted that as a possible outcome of an accident that was not his fault. Yet he was also open to possibilities beyond what his doctors could see. He chose not to accept the labels they tried to place on him.
Hal beat death. Hal beat wheelchair confinement. Hal beats every label anyone tries to put on him without his permission, and that is what I want for each of you.
I’m still pulling off labels I acquired like a hippie van at Woodstock (or at least what I imagine such a van became there; I was comfortably home in my crib in Kentucky–an actual bed for babies–at the time). I discussed some big, sticky labels with my Crime Victims’ Counselor today: victim, survivor and whatever come next. As much as my mind intellectually knew it, I hated hearing her say “It’s a process.”
“UGH!” I thought. I really wanted a magic spell or command that would make the process easy. I wanted my attack to make sense (for me and for my teenage assailant) and lead me to my life purpose, as it did for people like John Walsh. Then, I was reminded of words I had spoken to a friend yesterday. “To us, it looks like success occurs overnight and from ‘big breaks,’ but it doesn’t really happen that way. Nor do you get to kick your feet up and coast to greatness after an opportunity arises. That actor or musician whose name is now on advertisements across the world was once just like you, working a ‘survival job,’ taking lessons, rehearsing, auditioning, and wondering if he should just start a new career.”
I doubt that John Walsh (or even Hal Elrod) saw his loss and grief as his big break. He took some of the most bitter, rotten and rancid lemons and made lemonade, but not for himself. He did it for other parents and for a safer world. His outward focus brought light to his inner darkness. He chose to wear the label of advocate, not victim. He chose the label of power and removed pain–many times. That one seems to have Gorilla Glue on the back.
How much suffering is enough? What is the appropriate method for grieving? Someone will always have an opinion about how we should live our lives, yet we are the ones who have to live with our choices (and their consequences)–for as long as we choose to live with them (including by taking no new actions).
As I wrote this post, my best friend since age 12 posted the following on Facebook: “I attract that which I am. I am love, trust, compassion[,] and adventure! How about you?” I responded with my chosen labels for today: “I am love, silliness, sunshine, partnership, friendship, family, and kindness.”
Which labels do you choose today?