Getting Beyond Labels

February 8th, 2013

One of my favorite scenes in the cult movie The Blues Brothers is when Jake and Elwood and the band impersonate The Good Ole Boys at an out of the way bar called Bob’s Country Bunker. They look around suspiciously and ask the owner what sort of music they usually offer. She says, “Oh, we have BOTH types here- country AND western.” When they start playing the blues, the audience hurls insults, food scraps and bottles at them.  Eventually, in order to preserve their lives, they play a version of Rawhide to pacify the crowd.

A lot of the  differences we fixate on are about as minor as the difference between country and western music. Like the crowd at Bob’s Country Bunker, we get our noses out of joint when people don’t fit into our neat boxes. If only we could see beyond the surface differences to the universal spirit that unites ALL. The good news is that it’s often no more difficult to find common ground than improvising on a classic old tune like Rawhide. Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’. When you hear music that resonates, it doesn’t matter what language or who sings it, or what they call themselves, you have immediate recognition that you are in the company of kindred spirits.

Life is too short and there is too much need in the world to spend time arguing over definitions. Spend less time defining who we are, and more time being who we are. The problem with overly defining who you are is that its constantly changing, and in any case you can end up clouding the real issues in trivia, arguing over whether music is country or western.

Sometimes the consequence of this sort of labeling is even more extreme, like this classic old story.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.

“Well, there’s so much to live for!”

“Like what?”

“Are you religious?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”


“Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”


“Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”


“Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist or Reformed Baptist?”

“Reformed Baptist.”

“Me too. Are you first reformed or second reformed Baptist?”

“Second Reformed.”

I said: “Die, heretic,” and pushed him off.

It’s fitting that new denominations are often called 1st reformed, 2nd reformed etc. The difference between them is little more than a number. All they are doing is reforming, aka rearranging the deckchairs. It’s much the same in politics. Liberal or conservative? Republican or Democrat? Tea Party Republican or centrist Democrat? Labels come and go like the tides. How do they help the world? Arguments between and within religions and political parties are often as insignificant as debating the difference between country and western music.

Transformation is far more exciting than reformation. Transformation gets beyond the status quo which only ever exists at a surface level, and gets to the heart of things which is where unity resides. Once you get to the heart of things, labels seem trivial; just a minor branding exercise.

It’s in the space between the labels that the best human interactions take place and in the space beyond definitions that possibility dwells. We can genuinely connect from a place of openness and without defense. We have so much more in common than our labels can even hint at. The poet Rumi described it like this-

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense

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