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Eliminating Labels – Taking Off the Masks

By Marjorie Foerster Eddington

There's nothing quite like Halloween -- people dressed up in all sorts of costumes, wearing scary, unique, or beautiful masks. It's fun to step inside a different "skin" and see what it's like, especially since it seems that we get judged according to our "skin" -- our clothes, possessions, or general appearance. Wearing a Halloween costume and mask is a chance to be someone else or to be anonymous -- without being labeled.

Labeling people and objects is commonplace in today's society. We adjust to those labels, consciously or unconsciously. And we act differently because of those labels, based upon the situation and the people -- whether we're at home or school; with friends, teachers, or family; at interviews, work, or sports.

Shakespeare wrote:

All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts….
                                        As You Like It, II.7

Playing different roles is not inherently wrong or bad. But there are times when we play roles and, in the process, forget who we really are or begin to limit ourselves and our goals, expecting less and less of ourselves as we become accustomed to the "role" we're playing. And we do this to others, too: we stereotype them. Some stereotypes aren't negative, but they almost always put people (ourselves included) into rather small boxes. Advertising exacerbates this problem, making us think we all should look, act, and feel a particular way when that's not who we are or what we're like at all.

As a result of such pressure, we sometimes want to hide who we are -- hide under different masks. What do we want to hide? What about ourselves don't we like or love? Appearance? Relationships? Believing we lack creativity? Loneliness? Not feeling athletic? Not being adventurous? The list could go on. And if we keep building it, we're going to label and limit ourselves even more.

Q How can we be ourselves even though we play different roles?
Q How do we keep our individuality instead of burying it under layers of labels or masks we wear?
   
A We have to love ourselves and love others enough not to label.
A We have to love ourselves and others as God loves us, and see ourselves and others through His eyes.

We also have to recognize the ways we limit ourselves:

  • I'm not smart, creative, athletic, adventurous, courageous … enough.
  • I can't. I'm too fat (or too thin).
  • I don't ever make good friends; my family relationships stink….

Such statements hurt us by creating an image, attitude, and set of behaviors for us that are not derived from God. As a result, we deprive ourselves of enjoying our heritage as God's children, created in His "image" and "likeness" (KJV Gen. 1:26).

An image or reflection in a mirror does exactly what the person standing in front of the mirror (the original) does. The reflection cannot do anything by itself, ever. In order to keep ourselves from getting lost under a mask, it's helpful to think of ourselves as the image and God as the original. As God's reflection, we can't do anything He doesn't do. So, keeping in mind the mirror metaphor, if we say that we are always going to act in a particular way, that we can't break old habits, that we can't be ourselves, then we really are believing that God can't do something or that there is a time when God is not God. In effect, we're limiting God.

Jesus reminds us that "with God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27). In reality, we cannot limit God. And as God's reflection or image, we can do anything good. But our perception does affect our experience. So we have to realize how creating and accepting labels alters our concept of God, ourselves, and others. If we ever hope to succeed (at achieving a goal, at expressing our true natures, etc.), then we need to bring into our experience that which will expand our horizons -- a concept of God as infinite, as infinite good, infinite Love, which is available for everyone.

Jesus reminds us that "with God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27). In reality, we cannot limit God. And as God's reflection or image, we can do anything good. But our perception does affect our experience. So we have to realize how creating and accepting labels alters our concept of God, ourselves, and others. If we ever hope to succeed (at achieving a goal, at expressing our true natures, etc.), then we need to bring into our experience that which will expand our horizons -- a concept of God as infinite, as infinite good, infinite Love, which is available for everyone.

We have to stop labeling others and making generalizations:

  • He's a nerd. She's a brain. He's a jock. She's a ditz.
  • Athletes aren't intelligent. Artists aren't organized. Guys can't multi-task. Girls are too emotional.

Putting others in boxes and sticking labels on them is not fair, and is, in fact, downright mean. Book and magazine covers and product labels all have the same purpose -- to make the consumer buy the book or the product. These labels generalize and categorize. We must not do this to people because labels are superficial. A product is one thing; a person is entirely different. People have a depth and strength and uniqueness to them that transcends the outward appearance. People say, "You can't judge a book by its cover;" yet so many people do. Plus, they judge people, who are much more valuable than books.

Often the labels we attach to others are unfounded, racist, sexist, biased, or naïve. When we stereotype others, and then base our actions upon those labels, we are denying ourselves the ability to learn from, enjoy, and get to know individuals who may have some incredible ideas, emotions, and experiences to share with us. Moreover, if our labels are wrong, we're the fools, since we've been acting upon inaccurate information.

Labels often have a paralyzing effect on others, just as they do on us. Labels don't give others chances to grow or to be themselves. It's hard enough to pry off our own masks, especially in high school where there's so much peer pressure to fit in with the crowd. We don't need to make it harder for others to take off their masks and find themselves. Rather, as Christians, we should be finding what's good in others. We should be making friends and helping others, not hurting them.

Words -- labels -- can hurt. That old adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me," isn't very accurate. Often, words do more damage than any broken bone ever could. We have to be careful about what we say -- or think -- about others.

Jesus affirmed:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matt. 7:1-2)

When you judge -- label -- others, you're opening up yourself to be labeled. And then, since you've bought into the whole concept of labeling, you have to spend time and energy to break through them. Of course, prayerful listening to God and His angel messages, which tell you that you are His beautiful child, makes it easier to take off the masks.

The Golden Rule helps us to keep from limiting ourselves or others with un-Godlike labels. Jesus said:

Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. (The Message Matt. 7:12)

If you'd like help to be yourself, then "grab the initiative" to help others be themselves. See them as God's children by appreciating their individuality, by not pigeon-holing them into certain groups. Because God is infinite, He has an infinite way of expressing Himself. Each individual is part of God's infinite array of beauty. No two people are alike. We know that. And it is our greatest privilege to be the individual God created -- unmasked. When we appreciate God's beauty in all its forms, we find that our identity is incredibly diverse, strong, and unique; and so is everyone's.

When we understand that loving ourselves as God made us is completely natural, then we can be ourselves in any situation. Of course, different situations require different behaviors. But that does not mean that we change who we are. It just means that we have the opportunity to express God's infinity in a variety of ways.

Halloween costumes, while silly to think about wearing them all year around, are representative of what people do every day -- put on masks to hide themselves or to show different faces. We might want to ask ourselves:

  • What costumes do I put on everyday?
  • What labels do I attach to others?
  • How am I going to take them off?

It's easy with costumes: you simply remove them. And it can be that easy with personality traits, if you allow it to be. There's no need to hold onto labels you don't want, or have outgrown, or that have never really been part of you at all. And, if we find that it's hard to de-mask ourselves or stop labeling others, we can have the same trust in God that Paul had when he wrote:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (KJV I Cor. 13:12)

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (II Cor. 3:18)

Eugene Peterson's translation of these words helps give us peace and hope as we work to understand how to recognize and express our God-given identity:

We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! (The Message I Cor. 13:12)

Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (The Message II Cor. 3:18)