From gay marriage to the so-called sanctity of traditional marriage. From monogamy to monogamish to polyamory. From “seeing someone” to “dating” to “going steady” to “just friends.” We have labels upon labels to describe the various relational types that we exhibit in our behavior, all connected in time with social standards and none of them capable of being anything more than approximations of reality. Stop for a moment and ask whether every iteration of any of the terms used so far have any specific standards in practice? Is every marriage the same? Is every date the same situation? The quick answer is no and most will find that to be a good thing. The only transcendent point belonging to every relationship label is that it involves a person or people.
Labels are great things. They bring coherence to our conversation, making sure more than one person is talking about the same thing. They provide legal structure for the cacophonous social reality of millions and billions of people living together on one planet. However, both of those qualities are artificial in their reach, they only work in so far as the very particular context allows. Conversations and debates go awry every moment of every day because while two people can use the same term they often are not using it in precisely the same way. Legal tomes weighing metric tons are written isolating just what any single term means given particular circumstances and variables.
This is likely not a new revelation, that labels are limited in their power. What is curious is the extent to which people so vehemently and at times violently defend the usage of them. We acknowledge their limitations and yet can’t wait to take on a new one or defend with our last breath whether a particular label applies to any one of us. At face-value this seeming hypocrisy is ridiculous and at times it most certainly is, but what labels fail to do in particular instances they succeed in the creation of our projected images.
In telling a story, an author has control over the direction and form the characters travel down and embody. The same applies to our own narratives, at least so we keep telling ourselves. Reality is a lot less constrained than a novel, a point that likely just buried the needle on the meter of obviousness. In our projected narratives though we often blindly accept that we are creating a reality, forgetting that in a reality that is so very much more than any of us, our narratives are not so much creative enterprises but attempts to limit focus. This limitation is often directed at those around us, hoping they’ll only see what we tell them, but it can just as easily be applied internally, helping us to see only what is beneficial to the continuation of the story we are writing in our minds.
Enter labels. More specifically, enter labels as they belong to human connections. Perhaps better they should be called linkages, points of contact between the singular reality in which we all dwell and the limiting narrative we are telling each other and ourselves. We like to say when viewing something distasteful that we don’t have any connection to it, a method of distancing oneself from contemplation of impotency or disregard. When wanting to hide from our feelings or impulses we’ll artificially limit the extent to which a label applies, so that being “in a relationship” becomes a caricature of what we ourselves have ever engaged in.
The broader reality in which we all dwell is one of constant and ubiquitous relational connections. In even the quickest and most superficial of contemplations there exists a relationship. The homeless person on the street we interact with by not interacting with has a relationship with us. The person or people at work, the commuters on the train, the friends we see at the bar or connect with via text all have relationships with us. This is not to diminish the term “relationship” to one of meaninglessness by broadening it to include everything. Rather, the attempt here is to call attention to how we seek to control that which isn’t controllable. I nor anyone else can stop creating relationships with each and every person with whom we interact, whether that be in physical proximity or who we see on glowing screens of our computers, televisions, phones and tablets.
When using labels, remember they serve the purpose of attempting to limit reality rather than create a new one. This can help us see how our narratives are hiding from others and ourselves aspects of reality we are finding it difficult to deal with or do not fit the comfort of the social place we are in. None of us can escape the relational reality of a universe always and forever bound together in a web of interconnected relationships. The joy of consciously living in such a reality is found in following the infinite variety of possible connections open to us each and every moment of our lives.
© David Teachout