Twice a month, I go to the home of some dear friends, along with dozens of other people. And we gather along long tables and share food and talk to each other and learn about one another. There are so many different types of people in this gathering, too, and that’s the very best part. We’ve got mild-mannered, head-covered Mennonite ladies sitting across the table from a sailor-tongued, crop-topped atheist and what are they saying to one another? “This broccoli-cheese soup is so good, who made it? Do you think I can get the recipe?” Or the most commonly heard phrase, “I have needed this so much.”
There are prayers for those who find their peace in prayers and there’s poetry for those who can see truth in it. Everything’s for everyone, really. We sing, sometimes. We pass bread and wine. There is so much affection. There is always a hand on my back. There’s always a kid asking for a hug. Men, women, children—so many children, we are all taking care of each other and watching over one another.
And in those evenings, when we’ve intentionally pulled ourselves out of the vacuum that we’ve created for ourselves—where our social media feeds are tailor-made to fit our personalities and preferences and beliefs—we’re learning so much.
We’re learning so much because for those few hours, a couple of times a month, labels—while they exist—are pretty meaningless. I’m not sitting down with a Mennonite woman and thinking, “this is a Mennonite person. Now I will learn about what Mennonites are like.” Instead, because I honor this person as her own, autonomous self, “this is how my friend is…” There’s so much more to my friend, too. What a disservice to get hung up on the one or two most obvious aspects to who she is. Because also, she’s a beautiful photographer, a coffee connoisseur, one who sits well with the broken hearted, a brilliant mother, an athlete, a wife, a riddle. She deals well under pressure and in pain, she has done supremely brave things and opens herself up to complete vulnerability regularly. She’s a massage therapist. She’s a librarian. She’s a social worker. She’s a writer. She’s who she was before I met her and who she’ll be after I’m long gone. She holds an entire life inside of her. We are all so much more great and vast than what our bodies or clothes or personalities betray about us.
Something that’s been quite on my mind lately is the subject of labels and why we need to have them and apply them to everyone. Not so much about why I need to label myself—because I can do whatever I want and whatever is comfortable for me—but why do I need to label other people?
And the idea that one does not speak for all.
And the fact that hundreds of different labels apply to one person. And so many overlap. And so many conflict. And, so then, what are they good for?
These get all convoluted all day every day. It happens all the time with groups. Religious groups. Those who have certain sexual or gender identities. People of different races. Feminism is one area where I see the very most—at least in my world. One person says “women should get paid as much as men!” and another one says, “but I make more than my husband, so that wage problem doesn’t exist.” As if that’s the end of the conversation. Not every woman in the world got together in a meeting and decided that, as women, we all are in agreement about how we feel about all these things. If only it was all so easy. We did not all come to a unanimous vote and then decide what we will present, as a united front, to the rest of the world.
It’s a hodge podge of things and the brilliant part of it all is that from that hodge podge and mess comes something really enormous and powerful. A choir of voices that—though they’re all singing something different—are making enough noise to be noticed and heard and listened to and honored and to be agents of change in due time.
I just wonder what would happen if we could easily set aside our own biases and have a conversation asking honest and genuine questions and really hearing the answers from an individual apart from the group to which you’ve assigned them.
The truth is that one person, who shares one of the myriad different characteristics that I hold, will never speak for all of me. Never. And that’s really easy to know and comprehend about myself but for some reason it can be really challenging to accept about other people. But it’s true for every single other person on the planet.
I’m a white, straight, female. But I know that all white people don’t speak for me. Straight people don’t speak for me. All other females don’t speak for me. I speak for me. You speak for you. But that person over there that you don’t know at all except that she’s got a scarf over her hair… she only speaks for herself, too. That family in the grocery store that’s not speaking English? You don’t know anything about them—regardless of experiences you’ve had in the past with other people who didn’t speak English. Someone who does or doesn’t believe in God the same way as you–if you are wondering what they think, you’ll never know by standing on the other side of the room. I need you to know that and really let it sink in, please.
I used to think that it would be so difficult to make friends once I was an adult because there was, really, no one that you’re forced to spend time with. Not like when you’re in school or living in a dorm or something like that. I thought I had a very specific type of person that I would get along with well and the odds of finding that person were too slim—especially in a town this small in a state this red. But in reality, when I look around at this house full of people who all come together with this express purpose of nothing more than meeting one another, there’s not a single person who comes to these gatherings that I would have considered obviously the type to be my friend. We’re all quite so different from one another. But we fit together perfectly. We all want the same things. We all want to be seen and known and accepted. We are all offering it to each other.
We all want the recipe for Miriam’s broccoli cheese soup.