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Life as Performance Art


     Truth be told, there is just not a lot of information I need to know about you, I’m just not interested in your politics.  In fact, I don’t care if you are a Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Natural Law Party, Socialist Workers Party, or a Libertarian.  Nor do I have much interest in whether you are a member of any organized or disorganized religion.  It doesn’t matter to me if you are Christian Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, worship the All Powerful Red M&M, a free-thinker.  Or, for that matter, if you a born again and devout atheists.  Unless you are coming over to our house for a meal, I am disinterested if you are a vegan, vegetarian, carnivore, or omnivore.  That’s your business, not mine. If you are coming over for a meal, then it is our business that we share together, and we’ll avoid food allergies or anything you cannot eat.
      Nor am I the least bit interested in the now-popular form of gender labeling.   You should know that the meaning of some of the words or labels are complete mysteries to me. 
   We had a simple solution for this situation when I was in university:  Everyone used their last name, with two exceptions. We used titles for professors because they had earned them; we used Mr. or Mrs. or Miss for everyone else who worked at the school as a matter of respect.   As for us students, it was strictly last name.  I had breakfast with someone for a couple of months before I found out her first name. I sort of wish I hadn’t learned it.  Her parents named her after their favorite houseplant – Aspidistra.  But since we only called each other by our last names, maybe her story was a few degrees short of the absolute truth. Still, I can’t hear the old Gracie Fields’ song, It’s the Biggest Aspidistra in the World, without thinking of Old-What’s-Her-Name.
    My list of unimportant labels could be much longer, but you get the general idea.  And it’s not that I don’t care or don’t like people enough to take an interest in them. Far from it.  I am interested, but these labels we attach to ourselves or get assigned to us get in the way. Labels are for products, sometimes for services, but not people.  Labels on people are not healthy; especially the ones meant to be toxic.
    There is a good reason for my disliking labels on people, and it is far removed from being a contrarian curmudgeon.  The minute we start using labels to describe ourselves is the minute we start separating and dividing ourselves away from others. That is when society and civilization are on a slippery slope downward. We sometimes notice the similarities we might share, but it is usually the differences that stick in our mind.  For the better part of the last decade, we have been warily watching for the differences, almost as if we are spoiling for a fight.  Usually, that fight is a verbal one, full of name-calling and more labels.  It is becoming increasingly lethal.
    You know the drill: “Oh, you belong to that political party. You must be such a hater!”  “You have to contribute to my pet project or people will find out you’re evil.”   “You have something good to say about that person?  You are no longer my friend!”    That is the result of labels.
    That is just disrespectful of another human being. It is also incredibly stupid.  A few weeks ago, a class of law students interrupted and finally silenced a guest speaker because he was a conservative. That’s all.  He didn’t say anything offensive, but he was conservative, and that was sufficient to hound him out of the room. They were in school to learn how to think like an attorney, and when they had the opportunity to learn from a successful one, they zoomed straight to the labels. He was silenced, forced off the platform, and a university official apparently thought he was getting exactly what he deserved.  Those students didn’t learn much that day, did they?
     A few years ago, Pat and I were at a dessert and cocktail party and a very nice, brilliant woman said, “I can’t stand to be in the same room as a [name of political party].  They even smell bad!”  A few days later Pat suggested inviting the woman over for dinner.  I said I wasn’t in favor of it because of her comment.  Now, I am not a member of the political party she despises, but when I heard her remark, that was it.  We did not need her vitriol.
     Our world would probably be a much better place if we held off on using the labels, especially on those three hot-button issues of politics, religion, and human sexuality, at least until we get to know someone on a more personal basis.  When we put the emphasis on getting to know someone, we find the common points we share and can often work around everything else.
    That’s what happened when Bob Jones went to England and met C S Lewis.  Jones, famous for establishing Bob Jones University (the one in South Carolina that had walls topped with barb wire and guard towers) was a self-professed hard core evangelical fundamentalist.  Lewis, famous for his Narnia stories and more serious books, was an Anglican humanist. The two men spent an afternoon together, and later when Jones described the meeting he said, “Well, the man is a pipe smoker and drinks beer, but after getting to know him, I think he just might be a Christian.”
     They learned from each other, had a delightful time, and found they had more they shared in common than ideas that separated them.
     Or, as Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess said in Downton Abbey, “We all have friends we don’t like.”
     She was right, of course, If we are fortunate, we all have friends we don’t necessarily like, or who do things we don’t like.  I am friends with someone whose vote I probably cancel at every election, or maybe it is the other way around. Another one tells me all the reasons he does not believe in the existence of God, and I just remind him, “Oh, I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in, either.”
     Relationships like those come into being, I am convinced, because we start with getting to almost organically get to know another person, rather than start with the labels.

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