19 August 2009

Still haven't found any answers to my questions to myself, but I'm trying to let go of some of the labels that I put on myself.

That's not as easy as it sounds. I had always labeled myself as not very strong physically. And then, on Sunday August 16th, I ran 7 miles without stopping for even a second. I had never done this in my entire life, not even when I was in high school. I did not break any records, not even for my age group. In fact, earlier in the day on Sunday, a little wisp of a girl, a Russian named Olga Kaniskina walked(?) almost double that distance in marginally more time that I took for my 7 miles. I repeated that performance; no, I bettered that performance on Sunday, August 23rd - I ran 8 miles without stopping even for a second. I even managed to reduce my average time per mile. This gave me a lot of satisfaction and happiness. Not many people, that I know and who are in my age group, can do that. I have started to think whether I should peel that label off myself.

How do you get the labels that are assigned to you? In my opinion, most of these labels are self-assigned. If they are not self-assigned, they are actively sought. Most people use them as a door-opener, an introduction to a closed group. You go to your child's school picnic where you do not know anybody; you introduce yourself as your child's parent. Next picnic/ meeting onwards, that becomes your defining identity. In other cases, people use these labels to actually set themselves apart from a group that they are in. You go to a rock festival and proclaim yourselves to be a connoisseur of opera; next time you meet people from this group, you are labeled a snob. You didn't self-assign the label in this case, but you actually sought it by trying to actually set yourself apart from the rock lovers.

Do these labels serve a useful purpose? In other words, are they required? I believe that while labels do serve a limited initial purpose, they have a habit of outliving that initial usefulness and, therefore, ultimately become constraints on you rather than enablers. Going further with the examples that I just cited, your child grows up and moves on from that school to another, and ultimately to a job, but you will forever be defined as your child's parent by other people in that group. Same thing with opera lover; your tastes change and you start listening to rock music, you even start loving it, but you'll forever remain the stuck-up snob to the initial group. People's opinions, beliefs, judgments have a tendency to be inertial - they change at the rate that a glacier moves.

Moreover, most of these labels are defined by external factors. External factors have at least two shortcomings. One, they tend to be transient; two, a factor that may be important to one person, may not be important to another person. Most external factors can vanish any moment - a powerful politician may lose an election, and may be thrown out by his own party, or worse, be forgotten by his own party. A popular film star's movies may bomb at the box office, and her backers may start doubting her pull at the box office, whereas another generation never really believed that she ever had that pull at the box office. Beauty? Not only is it transient, but what is beautiful to one is plain to another. Wealth? In these depressing economic times, do I even need to talk about the transient nature of wealth?

Can we get rid of labels? To steal a phrase from Barack Obama's campaign, yes we can. I believe so, because I believe, in the first place, that I assigned that label to myself. I can refuse to assign myself a label. I am what I choose to be.