I had surgery two days ago for breast cancer. To ensure the surgeon operated on the correct side, she marked the top, left of my chest with a Sharpie: “Yes” and her initials, “G A.”
It is a visible reminder that my circumstances have marked me with a new label–cancer patient. This new label is weighty. It carries with it expectations of treatments, illness, hardship. And it causes people to act differently toward me than they did before the diagnosis. Suddenly, I get more hugs. People ask me how I’m doing with an extra measure of compassion in their eyes. Folks want to help me with meals and anything else I need. I’m not complaining–I appreciate the extra help and am touched by everyone’s concern.
But at the same time, I resent the label, particularly because I didn’t choose it. And it gives me pause. What labels do I give to people based on their circumstances (or my assumptions about their circumstances)? Homeless man. Rich girl. Immigrant. Disabled person. Blue collar worker. Executive. Single mom. Elderly woman. Star athlete.
And what kind of weight do those labels hold? They surely affect what I think about those people and how I act toward them. How do we fight the urge to apply labels to people and instead focus first on the person? I don’t begin to know the answer to that question. But I think it’s an important question to keep asking.