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Why are we so in need of being labeled?

Or categorized? Or sorted? Or belonging?

Recently, NY times ran an article about an Afghani woman who is an artist: she’s Afghani and Lebanese by descent and name, with a Muslim father and Christian mother, the daughter of the Afghan president and born and lived in New York. She refuses to be tied down to labels.

Labels cloister: widow, professor, architect, mother, leader, student, delinquent, racist, terrorist, revolutionary…As Spike Lee once said about Bataille d’Algiers: some people see a revolutionary as a terrorist, but others see terrorists as revolutionaries. Lee wanted to underline the fact that people can be more than one label.

Some folks tell themselves that they can’t do something differently because they were ‘born’ into a zodiac sign which tells them how they should be and act. One of my roommates, a pianist fairly accomplished, doing tours in Switzerland etc, annually, sometimes twice annually, often dealt tarot cards to read her present and future, and wouldn’t do certain things because the cards ‘told’ her she had to do them a certain way, on a certain day, at a certain time.  But she is not the only one to think like that. Hindus as well as Russians, Chinese, Arabs and others do that. If we only adhere to the Zodiacs, we hole ourselves into the emotional label because we’re Cancer. Or indecisive labels because we’re Libran or stubborn labels if we’re Aries or Taurus and so forth. And while astrology “can” zero in on marriages with regard to compatibility, isn’t compatibility what we eventually seek when we’re wiser and have been hurt a few times? Some people’s grip on lives is so thin that they’ll embrace any preposterous delusional category rather than get out and embrace other ideas.

Not so long ago, and pre-digital age, we had magazines [like Cosmo] telling us how to be the best lover, or catch the best or hottest lover, how to dress to appeal to men. Such magazines and books would tell us how to act to attract the types of men or women we want in our lives [as though that will ‘make’ us magically into someone else]. Or where to go to pick up the kind of men and women we want, when to smile, how to smile, what to say, when to say…how not to appear weak, how to be coquette… blah blah blah. All of these magazines were replete with images so we could see who we could potentially become: all size 4 models, waifs, made up a certain way. In short, these images told us we had to look like mannequins. Nothing else. Imagine a world full of women look-alikes. Creepy!

Skip to the digital age and we see that it is not as different; we’re now taking quizzes on internet so we could see to /in what category we belong. Category of doshas in India; archetypes in the western world etc. are all categories and labels. I’ve taken the test to find out my dosha, like other folks, but I don’t belong to one dosha, but a mix of doshas, and find myself wanting another dosha because the 4 given doshas cannot accommodate me. Needless to say, that makes it hard to listen to the advice of any one of them!  Then there’s the archetypes in the west, majorly Jungian archetypes: hero, creator, lover, jester, sage, caregiver, rebel, explorer etc.  Add all of these ‘types’ and ‘labels’ to our cliktivist  internet generation and we are belonging to categories more and more: we rack up followers, scoring ‘likes’ everywhere, because ‘likes’ seem to dictate that we are liked. We are doing what the other is doing, announcing to the world who, where and what we are. We are placing ourselves into categories in which the others have found themselves by taking tests to define who we are.

We are letting race, gender, class, sexuality etc define our value and potential. We allow ourselves to belong to this organization and the next. Otherwise we ‘don’t’ belong. We are obsessed with labels and labeling, and categories, groups etc. Where has ‘be yourself’ gone or migrated to?

The Western world is obsessed with self, yet is always trying to belong to the tsunamis of groups, categories, orgs. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are global, creative etc while living in cultural containers because of our endless dissatisfaction with that created self, not a natural self.  We are told to “be yourself”, establish a deep connection to the self in and out of yoga classes, but it is an outside self to which we are attaching ourselves, a self that will always be outside and shifting, which will always elude us precisely because it is not natural. It is like dieting; we never quite get there, because something is always incomplete or not right.

There exists a rich array of identities, multiple cultures and diasporas, multiple opps, and abundant influences in our world. Yet we limit ourselves in container and textbook categories. We crave multiplicity, yet live fixity. We teach our children to be the same as others, and if they’re not, and different, they are bullied. We don’t teach them to be different, or independently thinking, and as a result they take long to develop emotional independence and afraid to stand out. There’s great need to fit in, not stand out. And maybe labels feed our frenzies because we are not secure in ‘self’. We need to be told who we are, yet resist being told who we are. We do not see that we are porous beings capable of being many selves from all this wealth and abundance of influences. And the more these influences surround us, the more we let archetypes, labels, categories, and borders restrict us. We don’t see the possibilities of being multilayered, of “not” belonging to any one group, but existing in-between labels and categories.

We are in the midst of a global influx and open our doors to all races and creeds.  We travel to lose ourselves in others’ cultures, but then we have to travel to find ourselves, without realizing that in between those two journeys and distances, there exists many [accumulated] selves.

It is possible to extinguish the person as some Western scholars have thought, but the only “extinguishing” (the literal meaning of nirvana) we should adopt is to extinguish the flames of greed, hatred, and delusion that assail a person’s character. We don’t have to limit ourselves to the principles of Buddhism or any one faith or dogma, because labels and types imprison our potential. The possibilities can be endless, whether Taoist, Zen, Hindu, Jain or Christian, American, French or Iranian. We are something else, too. We can be many different things all at once: introvert, extrovert, creative and different, successful, spiritual and all simultaneously.

I can’t exist in a container nor can I accept one label. One day I may go to Starbucks and order a tall chai latte, with coconut milk, no water, low foam, one pump and the next day, a grande oprah chai with low foam still, 2 pumps instead of one, half coconut and half soy milk, still no water because I like my chai thick and sumptuous. That’s a lot for the cashier to write on a little cup, but I don’t like the constraints of one label. instead, I ask them to write new labels for me because I don’t like the one label on their menu. And even though it is just a chai, it illustrates perfectly well that we can shape our own world [and tastes], and if we don’t, then someone else will shape it for us. If someone else defines what we like and what we should have, we’ll be stuck with ordering a simple chai the way they decide to make it: 3 pumps [and extremely sweet], watered down with some milk for color, the way everyone else orders it. But the possibilities of taste could be endless, if we just get out of the ready-made categories created for us. A chai doesn’t just have to be a chai.

new chai latte

We can take joy in being the architects of our own destiny, and not be bogged down to one definition of who we are. This is our world, and we should listen to the many selves that we are.


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