Only If They Set You Free

This month’s Peace-ology article is about labels and how we can choose to use labels or not, depending on if they set us free. READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE.

Michael Hall’s Red: A Crayon’s Story is the tale of a blue crayon with a red label. The crayon was not very good at being red. He couldn’t draw strawberries or work with yellow to draw an orange. Everyone tried to help. Even scissors and sharpeners made snips and tucks to see if changing him would help. He kept trying harder and harder, but nothing seemed to work. He felt like a failure. Then, a new friend asked him to draw a blue ocean. “I can’t,” he said. “I’m red.” She invited him to try, and he did. Not only was his ocean perfect, it felt easy! “I’m blue!” he proclaimed as he enthusiastically drew the sky. There was nothing wrong with him. The problem resided in the label assigned to him.

The first time I read this book aloud to my little kids, I cried. Hard. My heart went straight to two of my high school students who came out as trans and navigated gender transitions. Then I thought of students exploring their sexual identity or students who came from mixed race families struggling to find a sense of home in their racial identity. These young people were grappling with labels that had been given to them that didn’t quite fit. Like the blue crayon, they felt like they were doing something wrong. Once they broke free of the limiting label and found one that fit better, they found vitality and power in who they were and who they were becoming. It felt like an unlocking. It felt like release. And coming home. Finding a more suitable label brought freedom and and increased sense of inner peace.

Labels bring ease. Our brains like to categorize things, and they can be exceedingly helpful. When it comes to our identity, however, I encourage students to only use labels that set you free. Similarly, instead of applying unwanted labels to others, we can instead get curious and listen to the labels others choose for themselves. Something as simple as asking people what their preferred pronouns are or allowing people to diagnose themselves on the Enneagram personality test are small acts of peace.

Digging Deeper:

Listen to the song “When I Was a Boy” by Dar Williams and think about how gender roles and stereotypes limit both boys and girls. So many of our binary labels cut us in half when our humanity is messier and more beautiful than that. As young people unfold in all sorts of ways, how can we hold space for them to decide who they are becoming and encourage wholeness?

Listen to Scene on Radio Podcast: S3 E10: The Juggernaut: Writer Ben James and his wife Oona are raising their sons in a progressive and “queer-friendly” New England town. They actively encourage the boys to be themselves, never mind those traditional gender norms around “masculinity” and “femininity.” All was well. Until the elder son, Huck, went to sixth grade. This episode also features psychologist Terry Real, who does amazing work around masculinity and intimacy.