A meditation: we all simplify life by giving the people around us handy labels – beardy man, quiet lady. Is this an innocent convenience or a harmful habit?
I’ve spent large parts of my life commuting, and getting on the train I would find myself mentally registering all the regulars – Hairy Man, Rucksack Girl, Know-it-all bloke who talks on and on. Yes, it appears that over time I had labelled them all. I know I’m not the only one who does this. Maybe Mr. Congeniality delivers your mail or blue-haired-girl works in your newsagent.
On TV they helpfully do it for you. In competitions like Masterchef or The Apprentice, so you remember who a contestant is from episode to episode, they provide a label and then use it over and over: Events-organiser Jane; Single parent Joe; Ex-accountant Andy.
The problem is that if the label is all we know of that person we can forget the individual and presume they are like other accountants or single parents we’ve heard of. Waiting for that train, if I see a group of teenagers I have to stop myself from getting in another coach to avoid teenage rowdiness – even if there is no sign of it in reality.
Jesus went out of his way to question such labelling into categories. He knew Priests were respected and Samaritans were religious and racial outcasts, so in one of his most famous stories he deliberately makes the Priest behave in a despicable way and the Samaritan is the hero. Jesus was eager that we should look at the whole person and what they do, and not prejudge them.
Now I don’t think that labelling people to remember them is wrong. Rucksack Girl and Ex-accountant probably wouldn’t mind, and, let’s be honest, most of us need help remembering the people we meet. I certainly do. But today, when you meet someone who you know nothing about, remember that they have a whole life story that won’t fit on a hundred labels.
If you wish to use this as a reading in church etc. you may “de-personalise” it for use by, for instance, replacing phrases such as “I think” with phrases like “you may think” etc. That’s only a suggestion – it’s up to you!
This meditation was originally prepared for the BBC Radio 2 “Pause for Thought” slot and so fits their format of running to exactly two minutes long – as you can hear if you listen to this audio recording.