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Define yourself. Define me. Define God. Define spiritual. Define religious. Define… In some circles it seems like my very salvation is dependent on my ability to define some of these topics. I am tagged with labels from the moment I inhaled my first breath. Girl, healthy, white, infant.. As the years have rolled on, the labels attached to me, this one infant, born 50 years ago, have grown into an astoundingly long list. Athletic, cute, sarcastic, wife, mother, sister, Mormon, funny, student, volunteer (and vain considering I’m only listing the more positive ones from my list)… amongst the labels I have picked up along the way are the ones that wars have been fought over, such as Christian and American. Other labels have caused divisions in our government, our courts, and our houses of worship and in our homes. Labels like gay, lesbian.

The fact is, labels matter. We have to assign definition to things to make since of our world. It isn’t the label that is the problem it’s the definition that creates problems. Before vaccinations childhood diseases such as those labeled Small Pox or Polio were words that invoked fear. Images of quarantine and death were wrapped around these words and the child who possessed it. Today the label exists, but the definition the image creates at least in this country invokes thoughts of a crying child being vaccinated and not a lot more.

I was with a friend the other day looking at a popular dating website. I noticed a lot of people labeling themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. I assumed by that label that these were people who were disenchanted with organized religion, believed in God but had chosen to find their own route to making that connection to whatever higher power they believe in. But then I discovered today while reading on a forum that a lot of people felt that “spiritual but not religious” was a definition being given by people who were basically atheist but didn’t want the stigma of that label and so they chose this definition instead. Suddenly the label became very ambiguous. I have known a lot of people who I could classify as spiritual and who had no religious affiliations at all. I have also known people who were religious as far as practicing the constructs of their religion but lacked in spirituality.

The labels attached to each of us can hold very different meanings depending on the company you keep. You can stand up in a crowd of people as a proud American and sing the National Anthem at a football game and people will cheer the “proud American”. Now let me place you in certain pockets of the Middle East and just the label alone may very well cost you your life. So are you good or bad? Are you a patriot or are you pure evil? It seems as though labels that are meant to identify can in fact lead to an identity crisis.

After 50 years and an amazing mid-life crisis this former infant was forced to ask; “What defines me?” How I would have defined myself in my 20 or 30’s is nowhere near how I would define myself today. I still maintain many of the same labels: A mother, a wife, a volunteer. But years ago I was also religious and spiritual, and straight. The only one of those that applies today is spiritual. I could explain how I define spirituality but the fact is their will be a huge gap in understanding of how I define my spirituality and how the world defines my spirituality. Many assume that just because I’m gay I can’t possibly by their definition be spiritual. It almost goes without saying that when I refer to myself as gay, my definition of what it means to be gay will be greatly different than millions of people in this world. My definition doesn’t invoke fear, I don’t see myself as being anyone different than I was 10 seconds before the label was attached to me, and you didn’t fear me or loathe me 10 seconds ago.

What if I honestly don’t know? If after 50 years I don’t label myself as religious or spiritual or atheist what if I told you I just am. And what I am is personal between me and God whether he exists or not? The world demands a label and if I won’t attach one to myself on a particular topic such as religion they feel free to attach one to me anyway; confused, noncommittal, deceitful, lost, evasive, insecure…I don’t see myself as any of these things.

I could get all cliché and say the comforting things like it doesn’t matter what others think, or you can’t please everyone, be yourself and you’ll attract like minded people, at the end of the day my definition is the only one that matters… yah, I could say all that. But while not worrying about pleasing others, and finding comfort in my own definitions and being proud of the labels I have collected, the fact remains that people want to kill me for being Christian, for being an American, or being gay. Bottom line folks, I don’t want to die. I want to live. We seem to fear most the things we understand the least. I would be crazy to think that after 50 years I have found the answer to world peace. I can’t define tolerance in a way that makes people put down their weapons and stop hating each other. I can’t replace all of the hate in the world with understanding. Education is a key element in getting people to not fear each other. But I can’t teach someone something they aren’t willing to learn.

Somehow it feels like I am a walking billboard of sticky notes with a single label written on each sticky. Most of us with all our sticky notes want the same thing. Nothing extravagant just acceptance, love, basic human rights, maybe some clean water a little soap and an Oreo. At the end of the day I take ownership of all of my labels, gather them up, and place them on the nightstand beside my bed, grateful for the people in my life who can see through the large pile of labels now sitting next to me. Come morning I won’t scoop them up and begin placing them all over me again. I don’t have to. As I go through the day they will just magically begin to appear again first wife, then mother, friend, volunteer… What I have learned after 50 years is that labels come and go and so do the definitions we perceive along with them. They can also be dangerously limiting. Religion, marriage, motherhood…doesn’t define me, the day it does I can no longer grow and change. It’s when those piles of sticky notes are left sitting beside my bed that I must confront what’s left-who am I? All I really care to ask in that moment is-Am I a good person? Did my actions today reflect the definition that I have placed on the label “good person”? If I can say yes than all the labels gathered on my nightstand just simply melt away.


Stephanie said...

Excellent, St. Jude. It is sad to me how we let labels define our relationships. How many people have we tossed away because of the labels we attach to them?
And how are afraid are we to peel away the sticky notes and get to know what's really there?
Loved this.

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If you have ever experienced a period of doubt or questioned your beliefs in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you know that this is not a minor thing. It is tantamount to a crisis, and one that can be life altering.

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