I have a question that events and conversations over the past few years have created. I will not recount these conversations or the people involved because that would take more time than I want to spend, nor do I think it’d be fair to the participants, either (even if I were to disguise them like I do with every story that appears here). Suffice it to say, I’ve sat back and merely observed these conversations, watching what was going on around me. I have not come to any conclusions, so I suppose you could say this post is a mental exercise to try and at least come close to placing my finger upon something firmer than I currently have in my head. What I’m searching and have formed a hypothesis for is the answer to the following question: At what point do we quantify individuals, determining there has been a certain juncture where they merit or acquire a fixed label that solidifies them for the rest of their lives?
Two disclaimers on word choice here—why quantify over qualify and what’s the interplay between merit and acquire is in these situations? First, why not qualify since we’re technically giving a person a qualification? That could work, but I think quantify is more appropriate in terms of the limiting structure it presents. Qualify is very open-ended or subjective, whereas quantify places a specific, often numerical, value on something in the sense that we’re determining its quantity. This is more objective and concrete, meaning that if we quantify other people, we’re telling them, “We’ve decided you have this one label, and we will only view you through that lens.” We could argue that we gave them a qualification just now, but in reality, we gave them something much stricter, more akin to a strait jacket than qualifications usually are.
Second, the reason I say people could merit or acquire their fixed label is because there is a distinct interplay between “us” and “them,” with the “us” being, let’s say, you and me, and the “them” being whomever we feel like has done something so detrimental that we forever think of them through the lens of that action, achievement, outburst, evil, or sin. The difference between merit and acquire is really quite vast. Many of us believe other people do something and, thus, earn for themselves this new label; they merit it because of the merits exposed by their independent actions, so now the new label comes in. However, in the event that people have done something that didn’t actually deserve our judgment, appraisal, and reappropriation of them as people, then they have unfortunately just acquired a new label. We have given it to them, and forcibly at that. (Or, we could even say, a new moniker instead of label because what we’re really doing is renaming them, which is essentially nothing more than a move to rob them of their identity and assign them a new one, a move that proclaims, “No, you are no longer This anymore. You are now THIS, and THIS is what we have chosen, so regardless of what you do from here on out, we will continually view you THIS way.”)
My hypothesis is that usually people merit a new label initially, but over time they keep it—not because they deserve it any longer, but because they continually acquire it from us, the people around them. But I should first give examples of what I mean, and I will do so with a name because I believe representative scenarios are made more powerful if you can picture an actual human being because, after all, we are dealing with a very human situation here.
I’ll call our man Philip.
Philip has many friends and family. Philip did something wrong—something his friends and family could not accept. It was a dark time in Philip’s life. Some people thought he “went over the deep end” or “changed” or “sank to a new low.” Whatever the viewpoints, Philip’s life changed irrevocably because of what followed:
He had a new label.
I’ll just go ahead and say that Philip merited this new label. That doesn’t mean the label was automatically fair per se; it simply means the label came into being because of his actions. All that matters is there was a new way in which people viewed Philip. Basically, his actions had quantified him, placing him in a fill-in-the-blank sentence where the “be” verb and corresponding adjective were ready in their positions, and all that remained to be seen was that his name would be placed where the subject of the sentence went. Into the sentence he was placed and then sentenced forever. By his own actions. Unavoidably, we as his friends and family came to view Philip through the dark glass of his new label. We couldn’t help it. “He did bring it on himself, after all,” we would say to each other. And so, Philip was described that way.
But then . . .
Here’s what’s interesting. Philip, in the years and decades that followed, turned his life around. He began to reject his former bad choices or habits that irritated us or hurt us. If it was alcoholism, he sobered up. If it was pornography, he got rid of his computer. If it was an addiction to sex, he swore off gentlemen’s lounges. If it was anger, his management skills became impeccable. If it was an avoidance of paying child support, he now spared no expense. If he was an absent father, he was faithfully present and accounted for. You get the picture. Philip’s a different man now.
Or is he?
See, this is where it gets tricky because Philip, for all intents and purposes, is now no longer fitting of his new label, his new moniker, his new identity. Essentially, he no longer merits it period. And yet, here is the curious thing that happens: We, his friends and family, do not renege the new label—a label that is really quite old by now. Why do we do this? What has Philip done to us? Quite a lot, actually. Okay, so let us ask this question, then: What is Philip still doing to us? Well . . . nothing.
“Dammit, Philip, you’re creating all kinds of problems for us now. Everything was so neat and ordered until you had to go and clean up your life.” We would never say this, though. While there’s a good chance we’re thinking that underneath, on the surface and in person we’re telling Philip how happy we are for him, how he looks better than he has in years, and that we’re glad to see him getting his life back together. We verbally say this to his face, but when Philip isn’t around and we’re talking with our fellow friends and family, we continue to think of him and speak of him as if he still walks around under the new-now-old label. I will ask again: At what point do we quantify individuals, determining there has been a certain juncture where they merit or acquire a fixed label that solidifies them for the rest of their lives?
In truth, though, that question can never be answered because there are too many independent variables—specifically, that of the human element. Since every human being is unique, the point at which someone would quantify an individual is going to change from person to person. I suppose, then, the question should be this instead: Why do we feel the need either to create or preserve this fixed label for Philip?
I have a theory. (And your contribution is always welcomed and desired in the comments section on posts like these.) It goes back to how “neat and ordered” everything was before Philip turned his life around. This change for the better in his life throws off the former balance. We’ve gotten used to Philip being a bit of a “black sheep,” if you will. We’d prefer that he just stay that way because that makes things easier. (Every family or every coterie of friends loves to have a scapegoat.) However, in the event Philip doesn’t stay steeped in his bad behavior, we hope he’ll go back to being the guy he was before the bad choices came around because at least we’re somewhat familiar with that Philip, even if it has been a while since he’s been around. But then we run into problems with that.
This whole situation is compounded by the fact that we’ll never be able to see Philip as having fully returned to his pre-label state. Something visual will spark this. Maybe it’s the extra weight in Philip’s gut all that alcohol has seemed to place there forever. Maybe our eyes will just randomly be roaming around the room, happen to glance across the crotch of Philip’s jeans, and suddenly all we can think about is how many hookers he slept with. Maybe we’ll see him playing with his ten-year-old son and, though it’s a beautiful picture now, only be able to think of those eight years Philip wasn’t there for the boy. And suddenly, no matter how hard we try, we can’t think of anything but the Philip who merited his label. Except he doesn’t merit it anymore. Not now. He’s acquiring it from our inability to move on. And deep down in the subconscious part of our brains, we affirm that we will never be able to view Philip as being a different man now and that the only way we could do this is if Philip were to become that pre-label man again. For us, he needs to return to the “old Philip.”
But this is laughable. It is laughable because it is impossible. And it is good that it is impossible. We as Philip’s friends and family can’t understand that it’s a good thing he can’t go back to the “old Philip.” We would think that is laughable. And yet, perhaps the joke is on us since we don’t want Philip’s past to still be a part of him.
The joke would be on us because we would be expressing our disdain for one of the most beautiful aspects of our maladaptive choices, which is that they do become part of us—and permanently at that. They contribute to our existential makeup in a non-reversible manner, and that is a good thing. While this isn’t true across the board for everyone, usually our awful missteps make us wiser, put us in a position to counsel others, or enable to us to see the world in a different manner that we wouldn’t have been able to before we made the poor choices in the first place. This is also the case from a theological standpoint. I do not praise God for only my good parts. I praise him for the shortcomings because, as the apostle Paul has told us, it is in those moments and in those areas where God is most visible because he is doing something greater than my weaknesses can account for. Whether we believe that about Philip or not, God is doing that in his life.
So, no, Philip is not back to the “old Philip” because the “old Philip” can never exist again. But that’s okay because he doesn’t need to. What needs to happen is for Philip to take all of his life’s experiences and use them for good and channel them in some way. Perhaps it would be to take the pain he’s experienced and use it creatively to produce art. Or go from being an alcoholic to volunteering at AA, from an absentee father to volunteering with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, from a porn addict to an activist fighting the sex slave trade—the options are limitless. But, for some reason, nothing Philip does is right for us, his friends and family. We would rather that he somehow extract those experiences from his entire soul, which can never happen, but we desire to see it occur anyway. (So, really, it’s not so much that we want to see the “old Philip” come back; rather, we want to see an entirely different Philip come into being, an individual we would like to construct.) Obviously a counter-argument here is that, since the “old Philip” will never return, Philip is deserving of his new-now-old label, his new-now-old moniker, his new-now-old identity. The only problem is that label existed at a time when he was wallowing in his (admittedly) bad choices, a time when he neither cared about nor gave a thought to leaving behind his newly found unwise behavior.
However, now is a different time. Philip does seem intent on changing. We would see this clearly if we would only take the time to sit down, play “Fly on the Wall” for a moment, and contrast the immediate present with the far gone past. Or, perhaps, we can go a step further depending on whose name is in the blank. Perhaps Philip already has made a change and quite a while ago. But will we notice?
There are three distinct relational examples in the last five years I can think of where I’ve come into contact with people who do not seem to notice that the Philips in their lives have changed. In every situation the people around these Philips would acknowledge with their words that he did make a change and that they were very happy to see that, but by their actions they shout from their rooftops that this change has not been enough for them and that they will continue to view Philip the way they’re now used to viewing him. They will do this until Philip turns into the “Philip” they would prefer. (Essentially, this is a request for an escape from reality.)
This is what I have seen, and it is heart wrenching because there is a multitudinous flood of ripple effects that comes from it. First and foremost is gossip. Philip is almost always talked about behind his back. He may not know it in the sense that he’d be able to prove it, but I bet he does know in some way. Deep down I’m sure he suspects it. He’s rarely invited to gatherings with his friends or with his family, and if he actually does receive an invite and is bold enough to show up, he inevitably will spend most of his time by himself, which will only then lead to his behavior at the gathering being criticized and dissected by everyone else after he has left the party. This is our friend, the one who no longer receives the full share of our love because we do not make the effort to see him through the lens of the present rather than the past. And I’m starting to wonder who is hurt more by this—us or Philip.
Philip is obviously hurt by this, as any person would be, but there will come a point where he is numb to it. He will run into enough lack of care, concern, and overall consideration of who he is as a human being who possesses feelings, thoughts, emotions, and dreams—so much so that eventually he won’t even react to it. He will, effectively, become A. A. Milne’s character of Eyeore from those many adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Philip won’t necessarily disparage outwardly, but he will be bitter inwardly—maybe a little and maybe a lot. (In fact, at this point we should ask whether or not being around those friends or family may very well make him want to return back to his poor choices that brought about the new-now-old label in the first place. I mean, if everyone’s just going to keep viewing Philip this way, why not?) But overall, I think Philip will just do what he’s been doing of late, which is moving on. Just like he moved on from his past bad decision and started to turn his life around, so he may very well move on from his friends and family by responding with, “The hell with it. They can think what they want. They don’t know who I am anymore, and if that’s a game they want to keep playing with themselves, they can just go right ahead.”
In actuality, that would be quite healthy for Philip to do. After all, if he is trying to distance himself from that maladaptive behavior and from that new-now-old label, that would mean removing himself from his friends and family who quantify him based on his past actions and keep that label alive. However, to the rest of us, his decision to distance himself will just cause us to perceive Philip as a loner, which we will view as unhealthy, and ultimately we’ll just wonder if (and potentially believe) he’s really still Bad Choices Philip and hasn’t changed that much. We will push him away, though we won’t have a clue we’re doing it, and will feel exonerated in our continual use of the new-now-old label precisely because he is far away from us. In short, we will have created and fostered a hostile environment that allows us to keep viewing Philip through our unforgiving lens. We’ll push him away, and when he acts the loner, we’ll feel confirmed and assured that we’ve quantified him correctly because, after all, “See how weird he’s acting? There must still be something wrong going on.” And we’ll feel good about it, even if we’re completely clueless we’re doing it. In the event that Philip has a relapse of some sort, we will feel even more justified—a sort of, “See? I knew he hadn’t changed”—when in reality we’re practically to blame for pushing Philip back towards the open arms of comfort that addiction offers any poor soul. After all, we were the ones who continually withheld our compassion, love, and acceptance of him.
This is a moment at which morality becomes rather dangerous. If, throughout the course of our lives, we hold so tightly onto our moral standard for the way life should function that we end up throwing out the baby (Philip) with the bath water of his own shortcomings (that decisive juncture of his actions), then the problem is not with Philip. Rather, the fault lies with us for having resolved never to let go of that imprisoning new-now-old label for the rest of his life.
I admit that, for any people who would categorize themselves in the group of Philip’s friends or family, letting go of the new-now-old label is a difficult thing to do because maybe a few of us could say that Philip’s actions really hurt us. While such—let’s just go ahead and call it this—forgiveness is near impossible to give when the person is still wrapped up in their bad behavior, the decision to show grace is made much easier once Philip has begun to reorder his life. And yet, even then many of us will not give that sort of forgiveness to Philip because we have become so accustomed to living with that view of him. To be without it, to start viewing him differently, would be akin to having a broken leg and the crutch ripped out from under us. (Actually, it’s more similar to a person with a perfectly healed leg still using a crutch, not realizing he doesn’t need its aid anymore.) We’re almost angry over or indignant at Philip’s turnaround. How dare he upset the clean binary we had of him: Old Philip, Good; Bad Choices Philip, Horrible; Current Philip . . . what is he? Some awkward amalgam of the two? What do we do with him now? Is he good or bad? We need some easy category to fit him into. It makes life easier. MY HEAD IS GOING TO EXPLODE OVER HERE, DAMMIT. This is our internal dialogue. We don’t like that Philip is now full of surprises and uneasy to pin down. It isn’t enough that Philip’s new status very well may be Trying, or Cleaned Up, or Moving Forward. We want something more definitive, finished, and not in-process.
He needs to be like us. We’ve got “it,” whatever “it” is, and Philip does not, and until he figures “it” out, then we will continue to view him under the new-now-old label. “It” is one of the most dangerous words in the English language because the second we employ it without a pre-establishment of what “it” refers to, we’re running the risk of proclaiming to the world that we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, which is often synonymous with lunacy. And by that point Philip doesn’t look so stupid anymore. In fact, Philip, the ostracized one, is actually the smart one because he, as a person who is in the middle of trying to turn his life around, is obviously in tune with some sort of wisdom that his friends and family are not.
Now, obviously not all of Philip’s friends or family think this about him. A few will be able to see him for who he truly is: a person who has something to contribute to the world around him at any moment in his life because he’s always learning new things. He is anything but a static individual. It is up to those friends and family who accept and appreciate that aspect of Philip to invite him into their homes when no one else will, to break bread with him around their dinner table, to ask him for advice rather than do everything they possibly can to shove their own perspective down his throat. It is up to them to invest in his life again and, by doing so, show him how there is inherent worth in him as a human being, no matter what stage of life he is at.
And in the event Philip turns a cold shoulder to their offerings of kindness, they shouldn’t take it personally because, odds are, he tried to give everyone chances again long before now and has simply seen how that window of time has closed. But hopefully you, as a reader, see the irony in this decision: If Philip does that, he’s suddenly become the friends and family he hates by believing they will never change. And so it comes full circle.
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said to love your enemies because, when you do such a thing, you will never be able to become them, and if there’s one thing Jesus appeared to take issue with strongly, it was hypocrisy. As much as I wouldn’t want to have to tell Philip this, that is how he must respond to his friends and family who infuriate him by still viewing him as wearing the new-now-old label. He must love them. They may never come around to accepting him as he currently is—a man doing his best to move on and create new, better life. But if he treats them with love in the meantime, Philip will never have to succumb to the shame of becoming just like them. And perhaps that’s enough.