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.