This article was first published in the September/October issue of Branches magazine (volume 26, number 4, page 11) on the theme of The Road Less Traveled. Branches magazine is a print only magazine available in the Indianapolis area.
Labels are handy things. They are a great way to sum up a lot of description in a succinct word or phrase. When I tell you I am a woman, that one word conveys all kinds of information about who I am. It makes introducing myself to new people easier when I can offer a set of familiar labels to describe myself.
In addition, accepting a label for myself can provide limits to the number of decisions I need to deal with at any one time. If I am a vegetarian, that limits my food choices, but it also simplifies them since meat dishes are now outside of my box. That can be comforting and simplifying.
On the other hand, labels come with associated boxes—the boundaries of the territory that the label describes. This creates two challenges. The first problem is that the description that goes with a label varies depending on who is using the label. Your idea of what it means to be a woman is different from my idea of what it means to be a woman, and both of those ideas are different from any third person we could ask. So labels can distort as much as they can describe.
The second problem is that boxes can easily move from being comfortable places of security to cramped prisons. Not only do we tend to hold ourselves small to stay within a self-proclaimed box, but others may try to confine us if we stretch outside of our box’s confines.
Labels therefore present a double-edged sword. Are the ease and comfort they provide worth the challenges they carry? I keep running up against this challenging question as my faith journey unfolds.
Initially, I found that living my faith life without a label was scarier than I could handle. I kept searching for a new religion or denomination or definition of faith that I could claim as a label and that would give me a big enough box to comfortably live inside. I wanted someone else to define the limits of what my faith could look like to keep from being overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. I wanted a label that would automatically make me part of a community to learn from and belong to. I wanted a label that came with experts that could help me define what “right” faith looks like.
But I never found a box big enough to contain all of my contrary parts. There was always some piece of my faith life that hung out over the box’s edge and was perpetually threatened with being cut off to make me fit in the box. Rather than let that happen, I would go hunting for a new box.
Over time, I’ve become less convinced that having a label would help me. My inability to find a label I can embrace has forced me to become increasingly comfortable with label-free living in my faith journey. I am finding people, practices and traditions to learn from along the way without feeling pressured to fit into any particular box that may go with them. I am learning to listen to my inner knowing (or Higher Self or Holy Spirit or conscience or intuition or any other name that may be given to this source of inner guidance) to guide me on my journey and help me discern what is and isn’t healthy for me. I am discovering fellow pilgrims on this journey that can support and teach me and provide fantastic conversation partners even if their pathway is not the same as mine.
In short, I’m learning to revel in the freedom and the grace and the goodness that being outside the box brings. My faith has deepened and grown in the process. There are still moments I long for a label. I want the ease of being able to answer others’ questions with a simple label to save me (and them) the long, confusing and often inarticulate explanation of what I do and don’t believe, practice and experience as part of my faith journey. I want the comfort of being able to find others who self-identify with the same label so that I know that I’m not on a solo journey. I want there to be others who are in the same (very broad) box so I can have some company. Every time I consider settling on a label, though, I find that my soul begins to feel pinched even before I have set foot in the box.
Living label-free can be difficult, lonely and scary, but I wouldn’t trade it for a moment for going back to the stifling “safety” of the box. I find more of the Divine out here in the label-free wilderness than I ever glimpsed from the confines of the box, and I have no intention of ever giving that up!