I spoke the phrase "I'm a runner" for the first time this morning, and the emotional jolt that accompanied the statement made me realize that I truly was one, and proud of it! I started with painful jog-walks in January of 2007, and ran my first half-marathon last Saturday. Running has gradually become a habit, a joy, and very nearly an addiction. I'm a runner, and while I'm not likely to turn pro or win any big races, I'm proud to label myself as one.
Labels are complicated, troublesome, and often dangerous things. Slow. Troublemaker. Snobby. Clown. Hyperactive. Controlling. Whether they're valid or not, labels can be extremely limiting at times. Label a kid "slow" and most will assume they are, treat them that way, and their path is laid out neatly in front of them. Tell a kid he's a troublemaker and he'll be sure to prove you right. Find yourself surprised when the clown of the bunch gets serious? We come to expect the behavior that matches a label, treat the person accordingly, and can feel bewildered if experiences don't match up, or sometimes depressed if they do.
Labels make us feel safe. Other people can be categorized, "understood", and filed in the proper bin so long as they have a label. We feel a measure of understanding, and often comfort that we either are or aren't like them in that way. We label ourselves to feel accepted, accomplished, and empowered, or to express negative feelings. Doctor. Coach. Unsuccessful. Runner. Mom. Labels are helpful in many ways, enabling us to find commonalities, services, and friends. While they're great for getting the big picture, they never give us a complete one. The more we label and less we dig into who and what someone is about, the more superficial the relationship will end up being.
On the other side of the coin, labels can change and even save lives. Diabetic. Allergic. Slow. At risk. The awareness in ourselves and in those around us that we have a special label can be the difference between life and death. Years ago I had the experience of following a crazy drunk driver down the road, alerting the police and trying to keep other drivers aware, only to discover (after his crash into a fire hydrant) that he was severely diabetic and trying to get home to his insulin! A case of mixed-up labels with a happy outcome as he got insulin promptly and no one was hurt.
Labels are incredibly powerful. They can inspire us to greatness, limit our horizons, or help up make many (incorrect) assumptions. They can start wars or careers, fuel passions and dreams, and instill fear or respect. Use them sparingly, carefully, and gently, and live them to the fullest if you take one on yourself!