My wife, a true child of the south, loves sweet tea. I, on the other hand, prefer unsweet tea with fresh lime or lemon.
At least twice recently, as we were dining out, our server refilled my wife’s sweet tea glass with unsweetened iced tea. In both cases, when we called it to the server’s attention, each server insisted that the label on the pitcher read “sweet tea.”
We suggested that “unsweet tea” had mistakenly been poured into the pitcher designated for “sweet tea.”
The servers seemed shocked that such an atrocity could have happened. They assumed that the label correctly identified the contents.
In the days following these two incidents, I couldn’t help but note how many things in life are mislabeled. And I began to observe more and more individuals trying to attach a pejorative label to other individuals.
As we were preparing to move a couple of years ago, we were sorting, culling and discarding things from our drawers and closets as we packed. Among the nostalgic things I discovered was a vintage Dymo Label Maker.
I don’t mean the label software we use to create and print file folder labels or barcodes.
I mean the manual handheld label maker into which we fed bright color label tape and embossed letters or numbers to place on cabinet doors, boxes, storage containers, light switches, and school lunch boxes and other items to identify their owners, state their contents or indicate their function.
The discovery of our old label maker caused me to reflect more deeply about the appropriate use of labels. Labels have been around a long time, and until recent years, there has been an unspoken etiquette regarding their usage.
Here are a few best practices we should remember regarding labels:
- Label things, not people. Philip Pullman contended, “People are too complicated to have simple labels.”
- Attach labels to your own stuff, not someone else’s. As we continued packing, we didn’t actually create vintage labels. Rather, we used a Sharpie to identify the contents of the box or the room where it should go. No one else, not even the moving company, could do that for us.
- Remember that the contents determine the label; the label does not determine the contents. Just like the pitcher labeled “sweet tea,” the contents of “unsweet tea” superseded whatever was on the label.
- Look for the newest label on the box and disregard the old labels. Like our moving boxes, some of our repurposed boxes had markings that read “books,” but we marked through the old label and wrote “dishes.” Contents change. And so does character.
- Labels lose their “sticktuitiveness.” The adhesive of most labels is more like masking tape than duct tape. And masking tape is for short-term, not long-term use.
- Labels can be intentionally deceitful. If you have expensive jewelry, for example, do not keep it in a jewelry box on your dresser so that it can be easily found during a break-in. Likewise, political and religious labels can be used to misdirect or manipulate the reputation or character of another human being to create a perceived advantage for the labeler and a disadvantage for the one being labeled.
- If Jesus lived in a way that defied labels, he likely expected his followers to do the same. Rather than trying to decide which political label, cultural label, doctrinal label or religious label to wear, what if we lived in a way that defied labels? Maybe our calling is to be so focused on emulating the way of Jesus that our lifestyle aligns with his values and teachings.
As we were determining which items to keep and which to discard, despite the nostalgia, we opted to dispose of the vintage Dymo Label Maker. We are at a stage of life where we hope to use fewer labels, not more of them.
And maybe, just maybe, the world would be a better place if we all used fewer labels, and that we are extremely careful with the ones we do use.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, live in Brookhaven, Georgia.