Of Boxes and Labels….

One of my favorite things to tell people who do not know me is about how I named myself, and it is a true story.

My mother married and had me before her 19th birthday; she was divorced a few months later. I never knew my biological father. I did not see him again until I was nineteen, and  just once.  My mother remarried and I always went by the name of my stepfather until I reached junior high age and for some reason, I think to do with the government, I needed to start using my ‘legal name’, a name I had never used or gone by.

My mother is a woman of many issues, and she badgered my stepfather into adopting me. I think it was more important to her than me. We met with a lawyer who tried to joke with me and I asked if I wanted to change “anything else” and I said “let’s change all my names.” He was shocked but my father said ‘it’s his name’ and so I changed my label from “Eddy C. Freeborn” to “Edward Charles Montgomery.” Although someone once unkindly said “you are not a blood Montgomery”, that name has been one of my labels ever since, and perhaps explains why I do not like to be called “Eddie”,  as some people try to do.

Since then I have had many labels. I was a football player, a basketball player, a player cut from basketball (twice), a midshipman, a Marine officer, a teacher, a husband, a father, a school administrator, a teacher again, a retired teacher, a substitute teacher, a lay minister, and on and on and on.

What all these labels have in common is cultural expectations. They allow people to put you into a box with stereotypes such as “all Marines….”, or “every teacher I know”, and I have never been comfortable with such easy dismissal. I tried very hard, for a very long time, to fit into those boxes because I thought I was supposed to; I thought it would make my life better. At the same time, I hated being labeled with a passion. It always seemed to me that once labeled, it made it much easier to ignore the individuality, the uniqueness, that makes people so interesting. I was often amused by my students who loudly proclaimed ” I am an individual and I don’t care what other people think!” while they were busy climbing into boxes and accepting labels. There is great cultural pressure to conform and fit in, especially in American schools.

Recently, I began a training program to help ‘lay leaders’ to be more effective team members for the parishes they belong to, and to work more effectively in their ministries. I see this training as a sign that lay ministry might be in the process of being acknowledged and respected so I wanted to be part of it, but therein lies the rub. The first thing they had us do was a ‘personality sorter’ which people seem to love. I think they love these “sorters” so much because they are often used to box-in people by surrounding them with a label and expectations.

Early in my ministry studies I had done another sorter and was given another label, “INFJ” which is the rarest personality type in the world according to this sorter. I accepted the label because I thought it accurately described me, but also because it helped me to understand why I always felt different: I was. I came to terms with the fact that I would probably never be ‘one of the boys’ and that there was nothing wrong with being ‘different’. I think it was the only label I ever thought fit me very well.

The most recent sorter uses a different label. According to a long executive summary I am a “Cs” but the world sees me as an “Sc”. The words used to describe me in the summary were harsh, and they upset me. I was not the only ‘trainee’ who was bothered. I had trouble accepting that upsetting large numbers of people with these ‘executive summaries’ was a useful way to begin team building. I realized that this summary accurately described ‘how’ I worked in certain ways, but not “why” I worked in those ways. It was as far off base as it could get.

I was supposed to discuss this summary with my pastor which presented problems. My newly retired pastor had not wanted to send anyone to the training, and I did not know the new pastor. He is from India, and a Salesian, so I worried that  his insights might be different from a pastor born and raised in my remote and rural diocese, plus, we had never worked together. What to do was a puzzlement to me.

My new pastor started working in the parish after a sudden trip to India when his mother died. We finally had a talk and he told me that, although he had done the same training, he did not put a lot of faith in the labels produced by the DISC analysis. He said it was more important to spend time with people and to learn about them by caring for them, and “looking at their hearts.” He told me to continue the training but to trust in “the Spirit you have come to know” and the other training I have had. He indicated that no amount of training would replace “loving one another enough to listen to each other.”

I kept those words in mind when I did the next lesson on-line. That lesson consisted of watching short video clips of people and using subjective criteria to label them. Instant feedback was provided as to the accuracy of the label I came up with to describe each person. I doubt that I would have accepted such training, but my pastor’s words helped me a great deal. I hope I never “learn” to “label” people in 30 seconds and to base my working relationships on those labels.

I recently saw a t-shirt that said, “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.” I hope I have the wisdom to listen when I go back to the training which continues for another year. I assume there is knowledge that is worth learning in the program. I also hope I have the wisdom to balance that knowledge with the wisdom of my new pastor.

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About Edward

Dishwasher, bartender, cook, house painter, movie usher, Marine helicopter pilot, teacher, administrator, teacher again, retired teacher, Secular Franciscan, Lay Ecclesial Minister- it's been an interesting ride.
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