Beyond Labels

BY
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Radioactive material label beside the transportation wooden box Type A standard package in the truck
07 Nov 2018
Inspiration

One of my children was recently introduced to the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.” I am both grateful and kind of annoyed with the person who introduced them into this child’s lexicon. (Yes, I am awkwardly avoiding gendered pronouns, to protect the privacy of the child in question. I might have to resort to he/she.)

On one hand, it’s useful to have words to make sense of the world – including the world inside one’s head. Attaching a name to how someone feels imbues that feeling with legitimacy; even if everyone else in the family – or the school or the world – is one way, but I am different, I don’t have to feel like there’s something wrong with me. There’s a word for them, and a word for me, and both are valid ways to be.

I could see the joy in this child’s eyes, as he/she settled into the warm embrace of that newly-discovered identification.

On the other hand, words are limiting. Throwing out a word, giving it a definition, and suggesting those few words represent the sum total of a person’s inner reality – that seems to lack nuance, and especially for a kid, to lock a still-developing individual into a box that might not leave room for the totality of that child’s current or future personality. The label might feel like a secure little cocoon, but it can also be a trap, particularly when imposed by another person.

I, myself, much to my own surprise and that of anyone who knows me, am an extrovert. At least, I think I am, if “extrovert” means “someone who gets their energy from interaction with people,” as I increasingly see it defined. However, often that definition goes hand in hand with a portrayal of someone who is confident, boisterous, the life of the party – and that’s why my friends laugh when I tell them I’m an extrovert, because I am none of those things. “No, no,” I explain. “I’m an extrovert; I’m just not very good at it!”

I might well have been labeled an “introvert” as a child, and that label could have trapped me into thinking I was “supposed” to be satisfied with just one or two close friends, to draw energy from spending time alone on a walk or reading a good book – when really, walking without a partner doesn’t seem like much fun, and despite my love for reading, too much time buried alone in a book is more likely to depress than revive me. Seeing myself as a frustrated extrovert can be somewhat of a downer too, but at least I can understand where I’m coming from and look for ways to comfortably get what I need to thrive – which would be harder if I’d allowed myself to be locked in to the wrong category.

Rabbi Yochanan reminds us of the dangers of over-reliance on categorization when he states, “We don’t learn from general statements, even where ‘except’ is said” (Kiddushin 34a). This general statement about general statements comes in the context of the Gemara’s attempt to work out the kinks in the Mishna’s famous generalization about gender distinctions in halachic obligation. The Mishna states that men and women are equally obligated in negative commandments and in positive commandments which are not limited by time, but that women are exempt from positive commandments which are bound by time. A few exceptions are mentioned (“even where ‘except’ is said”), yet the Gemara finds a number of counter-examples not included in the Mishna. Were the Mishna’s neat little categories wrong? Well, not exactly; the neat categories are fine, as long as we don’t expect reality to match them too neatly. They provide a framework for thinking about who’s obligated in what, but the realities of each specific halacha must be examined on a case-by-case basis if we want to understand the ways in which each one does or does not fit the general categories.

So what we need, I think, is to utilize labels, but carefully. This is true of almost any generalization or label, including those we tend to denigrate as stereotypes – any box into which we might want to place ourselves or others. The Mishna makes categorical statements because they help build understanding, but we’re not supposed to fully rely on them. Our own categorizations and labels can also help build understanding, with the same caveats: we must remain constantly aware of the limits of our categories, and never assume there are no exceptions or gray areas which have not already been stated.

I love to make outlines and charts, and I love best to do it on the computer – where I have easy flexibility to make constant changes as I develop my understanding of the material. Should that idea be nested under “A,” as “1,” or should it be labeled “B”? Well, I’ll put it here for the moment, but as I continue reading and thinking, I might move it around. I might change my categorization. I might even make that idea a whole new “II,” because it’s actually completely different from anything I’ve seen before – and that’s great, even if it doesn’t fit into a pre-existing box. Maybe especially if it doesn’t fit into a pre-existing box.

I might need to try placing an item into some of those boxes at first, to see if it fits, before I figure out its contours. But those initial labels don’t stop me from appreciating the beauty of its unique shape once I learn what it is.

That’s the thing about labels: they’re a beginning, not an end.

One of the theories I found most striking in my college psychology classes was Jean Piaget’s description of how children learn through ever-evolving schemata, or frameworks. With a fervent hope that I’m remembering and representing the ideas accurately: Let’s say a young child is taught the word “dog.” He or she might associate that word with a basic idea of a four-legged animal with fur, and will then point to a cat and yell “Dog!” On the other hand, if the first dog encountered was a fox terrier (those are little, right?), the child’s schema for “dog” might include “little” – and that child won’t immediately identify a fully-grown golden retriever as a dog, because it doesn’t fit the schema. The label “dog” is a good one; it’s useful. But accurately applying that label with all its nuance – there are different kinds of dogs, but not every shared characteristic makes something “also a dog” – requires a mind open to changing and reapplying labels, and even to learning new ones. The original schema is a good beginning, and it’s valuable as long as growth doesn’t end there.

So we can use labels for personality, and we can create boxes and stereotypes to describe political views and food preferences and religious leanings and anything else, and we can even make the occasional generalization – as a starting point. We just have to remember that there may be exceptions to every rule. Even if most people are X, some are Y, and that’s great even if we’ve never seen Y before. Even if I like to read, I might still be an extrovert; even if I align mostly with ____ political party, I might still hold ___ view; even if I like spicy food (I don’t), I might not like curry specifically (I don’t); even if I dress like people who fit a particular labeled niche of the Jewish world, my mind might be elsewhere. I might be four-legged and furry like a fox terrier, but I could be a golden retriever or a cat or a beaver.

If you want to know which, you’ll just have to get to know me. And if I want to know which, so will I.

I’m thrilled for my child to be able to say, with pride, “I like X, and I don’t like Y, because I’m Z,” as long as that identification is accompanied by flexibility. As long as he/she can maintain both an awareness of different labels and subcategories and the confidence to navigate them, in or out of a box, through a lifetime of growth – and as long as he/she remembers to take the same flexible approach in learning to appreciate the unique contours of others, too.


Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.