On The Vernacular of Good vs. Bad, Us vs. Them, In vs. Out

Last week I was sitting at gate E8 at Minneapolis St. Paul airport. It was 6:30 am and I’m watching and I’m listening. I hear the staff at Caribou lazily take orders. I hear suits rustling and smoothing their papers; a pre-teen lightly tapping the top of her Starbucks cup; soft murmurs from a loving couple dressed in matching trench coats. I see a woman scanning the departures board, wearing sneakers and terrycloth track pants a size too small. Her toes point inward and her brow is slightly furrowed. It’s clear she doesn’t visit the airport often and I think maybe I should offer her help. But I don’t, and she patters off.

This is my little past time, noticing nuance. It’s where I go when I’m spacing out; hyper-focused; entranced. Nuance is everywhere— especially airport— because at the airport, we all feel somewhat cloaked in an invisible shield of ambiguity. We are one face in a crowd of thousands with the exact same objective: to get from point A to B without being inconvenienced. We’re all in it together.

That morning at the airport got me thinking about the boxes we put each other in. We put pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots in a box. We put plaid shirts and raw denim in a box. We put bloggers and social media mavens in a box. We pile these boxes into larger boxes like “Good” and “Bad”, “Us” and “Them”, “In” and “Out”. Mobs of people tweet and write articles about “those” people in “that” box, deeming their opinions truths. Soon enough we collectively slap a lid on these generalizations before we can even consider their source or validity, let alone define an exception to their rule.

Whether we realize it or not, our digital footprints are a reflection of how we hope others perceive us. By carefully selecting soundbites from our lives with these labels in mind, we hope others see us for the set of qualities we’ve aligned ourselves with. Mother of 2. Coffee lover. You know the list. I think our online shields come from our innate instinct to self-preserve; to protect our vulnerability from those who will exploit us. We do this by creating a 2-D version of ourselves through a series of pictures and status updates. We give ourselves boxes so our peers don’t have to. If at the airport we are invisible, on the internet we stand on soapboxes of false individualism. They’re both an illusion.

What boxes do you give yourself? Maybe they help avoid the daunting task of facing who we really are are individuals. What about the boxes you’ve been given? If you strip them away, what’s left? Maybe you’re already a lone reed, or maybe you’re a lot like the friends you grew up with. Maybe you haven’t changed much since high school, or maybe you completely reinvented yourself. Maybe you’re chasing something that you don’t really want. Maybe you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Whatever your truth is, are you brave enough to accept it without judgement? Are you brave enough to embrace it? If it makes us happy, who are we to judge those who have a different set of values and variables that bring them joy? Who are we to meddle in matters that in do not affect our lives? What makes us the good vs. bad experts? Maybe, just maybe, their box is threatening to ones we’ve given ourselves. Maybe some people of us are just mean.

We’re seeing this behavior at a much larger scale with the Internet’s mob mentality, and it has real repercussions. It’s a real threat (whether or not the courts will recognize that), especially because having a digital footprint is almost required these days. So why does standing up and saying “I love this” garner this reaction? Putting personal expression into finite boxes cuts self discovery short, stunting our ability to find our strengths and work past our weaknesses. This work— full of disappointments and heartbreak— eventually leads to self-respect, but we need healthy and supportive environments to allow it to bloom.

Self-respect is also good for the world. When we respect ourselves, our lives become more manageable and more fulfilling; they become open to possibility and growth. We then have room to lift others up, to give ourselves to projects that require selflessness. We can contribute more positively to the world. We do not feel threatened by those who are different. We move away from Ferguson and #Gamergate. We progress as humans, together. When we concede to judgement, we send the message that it’s OK to put value on a person’s life based on a set of facts that don’t tell us anything about who they really are.

My point is this: what happens when our differences become points of relation, not lines drawn in the sand? What happens when we stop treating people as things to be labeled, and replace these labels with values? It starts with having compassion for others and for ourselves. Remove “Cool Girl”, “Basic Bitch”, “Bro Dude”, and “Hipster” from your arsenal of labels. Quit pretending that equality already exists in America. Start doing things because they move you, not because it will look a certain way to your peers. Revel in the things that excite you. Forget the trends. Start celebrating what talents you have instead of focusing those that you don’t. Let go of the reins. Before long, you’ll be saying things because you believe in it, wearing things because you love it, and putting together a list of strong individual values and attributes that will stay with you for the rest of your life, not just through your teens or 20s.

Everyone is on a lifelong journey of self-discovery, and there’s nothing more tragic than turning your back on your unrealized potential. Be a little weird. Let your colors show. Forget the vernacular labels we hold each other to and don’t be afraid to make a world that cannot define you, even if there will always be those who will try.

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  • I’ve been a longtime reader, but have yet to ever comment for some reason. I haven’t even made it all the way to the end of this post yet and am completely in love with how it is written. The content, of course, is relatable and thought-provoking, but I’ve been loving this analytical and honest style of writing from you even more so.

    I’ve always strangely loved airports for the storytelling aspect – wondering what people are up to, where they’re going, what their lives are like, yet I’ve never thought about the boxes I’m putting them in. Do I resort to storytelling about strangers to avoid thinking of the own boxes I’ve put myself in?

    Lots of great things to think about next time I’m enjoying my pre-flight downtime. Thanks, Kate!

  • Really beautifully written! This is exactly what I needed to hear right now, on a personal level, and it’s so important on a larger scale, too – now more than ever, I think. So, thanks! x

  • From the details of an early morning crowd, to the release of being consumed by a label, I loved reading this. So timely, so elegantly written.

  • I love so much about this post. I always say, just be yourself and you’ll make your own mark. There are way too many boxes in this world and everyone thinks that if they just do what someone else is doing, they’ll be viewed the same or you’ll find the happiness they have. This is such a wrong way of thinking. I believe in chasing what you want without questioning what others are going to think or comparing it to what other people are doing. Own your own.

    You said it all so beautifully. Thank you!

  • I have noticed myself doing this lately, and have probably been doing it for a long time. Im not proud of this, but when I see someone within minutes I have filed them into a category in my mind. I have been trying to consciously break this habit and just observe instead. Its not an easy habit to break though, and I appreciate the timing and sentiment of this post!!

  • We structure our world with narratives, the stories we tell ourselves and each other to make sense of things. Similar narratives are used over and over, thus stereotypes, tropes, and boxes abound. If we enjoy diverse story-telling, then we enjoy diversity, period. So I think it’s about exapnding the stories we tell ourselves, widening our horizons. When we see something for the first time, the immediate instinct is to judge, and that’s quite normal, thinking about the brain and survival and all that, and how we need to size-up someone or a situation very quickly. However, since we are also evolving consciously, the next step is to not always trust our judgments, to let them pass by without grasping onto them, and then to question our immediate thoughts, asking, What purpose does this judgment serve? This process of self-reflection takes work, which is why I believe many people do not take the time to do it. It’s more comfortable to have a limited set of judgments about others, less change and less new to encounter. However, I still have hope that people are coming to realize the works that needs to be done, starting with each individual.

  • Kate, this is refreshing and insightful. I so appreciate hearing real, full thoughts online–the blogosphere and social media can turn into bite-sized snapshots, which are great. I do love a thoughtful post like this once in a while, though.

  • Kate,
    I’ve been loving the things you’ve been blogging about recently. Keep it real! You’re a much needed voice on the internet.

  • “Start celebrating what talents you have instead of focusing on those that you don’t.” I can’t tell you how close to my heart that is, and how badly I needed to hear it! I’m having such a difficult time finding my passion, which seems silly. I feel like it should be obvious, but it is so easy to second guess ourselves, and put ourselves in a box, isn’t it? Thank you for another insightful post, Kate.

  • Terrific post. Except, of course, for the part where you completely judged and marginalized the woman in the track pants and sneakers. Why was that necessary? Perhaps you should take a bit of your own advice. Just a thought. ..

  • Hello there from the other side of the world! Thank you for a thought provoking essay. I loved the notion of “doing things that move you” and made me wonder if I fully know what those things are yet. Another phrase of yours also struck a chord with me but for another reason. You used the phrase “Work past our weaknesses”. I have found the opposite to be true – that peace is found in embracing my weaknesses and the box of what I think I ought to be begins to be dismantled. After a long road of trying to have it all together, it was in accepting who I am, what I can and can’t cope with, that life has found a greater flow. I hope a gentler humility has begun to blossom because in recognizing what I can’t do, I see what others can and cherish them for it. Maybe the unspoken expectation that we are to always work through our weaknesses actually encourages those boxes that bind that us?

  • This is really beautiful and so true. I have found myself losing hope in humanity when reading Facebook lately and all of the “us” vs “them” talk. Or “Dear YOU NAME THE LABEL—everything you are doing or thinking is wrong because.” People are so much more complex than one word or phrase. Sharing this. Just perfect!

  • I thought this was beautifully written and a great reminder for everyone to do more not to put others in a box immediately upon looking at them. I do, however, think there are some giant differences between judging someone based on their love of pumpkin spice lattes and Uggs boots and the prejudices and harassment that have led to events like Ferguson and Gamergate. Being called a “basic bitch” is literally the least of my worries as a 20-something black woman in America right now.