The Pros and Cons of a Label

“Let the Janitor through.”

I looked through the crowd of middle school students before turning to glance behind me. I didn’t see a custodian anywhere. But as I took a step forward pushing my sweeper into the parting crowd my bucket brushed against my leg. Sweeper. Bucket.

I’m the janitor.

For a moment my heart fell to my stomach. I wanted to scream out that I am not a janitor: I’m a parent helping the school by cleaning once a week! I’m a substitute teacher. A writer. A mom. But a janitor?

The label was like a sucker punch to the gut called pride.

I made my way through the hallway of students and ducked into my next classroom. As I picked up my towel and began wiping down desks, the hallway interaction repeated in my head. Why did the label janitor offend me? Why was I so quick to defend against the title?

We often put value on a label. Perhaps it’s a job title or a class status. Maybe a disease or disability. A person’s value is often perceived as the value of the label. When we place a label on someone our thoughts and actions toward that person become slanted in its favor.

Some labels we want. Like wife. Or mom. Beautiful. Successful. Some are necessary, like woman. Still others are hurtful, like ugly. Lonely. Unworthy.

The woman at the well carried many labels. Her first reaction to Jesus’ request for a drink clearly defines the separation a label can bring: “How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (John 4:9, HCSB). The Samaritans were less than human in the mind of a Jew. They were considered unworthy and unclean. The Jews did not hold them of any value. As a result they overlooked their needs and their desire for God. Beginning with this interaction, Jesus broke the labels that separated them.

A variety of labels separate us today, but all of us are invited to interact with Jesus. Our labels do not make us better or worse than others. They simple provide a space where we can share our similarities and our differences.

What label is causing you to think more or less of yourself? What label is keeping you from interacting with your neighbors? I challenge you to shed the perception of those labels. Instead, use your labels and the labels of those around you to create conversation. Open a space for all to be labeled as friend.