Boxes, labels and trying to be Houdini…


Boxes, labels and trying to be Houdini…

Human beings are strange creatures. We are all unique individuals and like snowflakes, no two of us are exactly alike. Of all the 6 or so billion people on this earth currently, not to mention the billions who have previously existed, you and I are totally unique. Even identical twins have differences; their genetic material may be the same, as they are cut from the same cloth, but at birth, they forge their own path.

Yet we attempt to apply classifications based on the most bizarre things: hair colour, race, height, nationality. I laugh at blonde jokes, not because I think they’re true but because I know they’re not. After all, how absurd would it be if you could assess someone’s intelligence based on their hair colour?

Each day though we do something just as absurd. We label and judge everyone around us based on a few assorted “facts”. We extrapolate like wannabe Sherlock Holmes and come up with a conclusion based on those facts. Someone speaks with a certain accent and we put them in a box based on a series of lightning fast assumptions drawn from the few facts we “know”.

I’m deliberately avoiding giving examples here because I do it all the time, make assumptions based on a few known facts. I can usually also predict behaviour past, present and future working from those facts, and I am rather often spot on with my guesses. I am somewhat proud of this, feeling a sense of kinship with my fictional hero Holmes. But real life is far more complex than fiction and there are usually rather more options to a person than the few considered in the Sherlock Holmes stories, just as the fonts used by newspapers are far more varied than the ones Holmes memorised.

It works like a vastly speeded up flowchart: spreading out and then narrowing down and down till you get your conclusion and it’s so satisfying when you get it right….

But people aren’t flowcharts. That middle-aged man wearing Harris tweed and carrying an armful of leather-bound books through the centre of Oxford may be an actor in a TV drama being filmed round the corner, or he may be a professor, or a librarian or an antiquarian bookseller or just some guy carrying books for whatever reason. Without actually stopping and asking him, you won’t really know.

This weekend I got warned I was going to be asked to consider being a committee member for a local charity and this news discombobulated me to such an extent I started having one of those accident prone days. I dropped something on our cafetière and smashed it, I broke a wine glass while washing up, I tripped over one or both the cats repeatedly. It took me hours to figure out what was wrong.

I didn’t like being put it a box or given a label based on a very few “facts” someone knew about me. I was being asked not because someone knew me very well and because I’d expressed an interest in either committee work or a charity but because I wore a label they thought meant I would be likely to say yes. More than this, I was upset because this was what used to happen a lot in the past, when my husband was in parish ministry. People put together the information they had about me and made assumptions. The trouble was virtually none of the information was about me as a person but rather me as a figure. It was based on a composite of what a clergy-wife would do or be. Very few people considered that I was an individual, with my own path and my own interests and passions. I can’t blame them; I do it myself a lot. But it made me more than uncomfortable; it made me angry and rebellious. It made me want to rip off all the labels, leap out all of the boxes, yelling “Ta dah! You didn’t expect THIS, now did you?”

So I was pretty uncomfortable to have revisited this state of anger and rebellion. I thought I’d mostly left that behind a long time ago. I get it some times at work, when work colleagues make assumptions based on the little they actually know about me. Their conclusions are almost always hopelessly wrong, which both amuses and annoys me. But like all things, it can be a mirror of what annoys us about ourselves and I know I do it too: make assumptions based on a few scattered facts.

Like anyone, I want to be met as an individual, someone to get to know in all my personal complexities. I don’t want to be chained down and locked in a box, with a label, so that people don’t need to bother opening the box and discovering who I am. I want to try and open other’s boxes and find out who they are. Surely that’s so much more fun than just reading labels and accepting everything at face and shallow value?

I’ll tell you one thing I have learned about myself though. If people persist in shoving me in a box, laden with ropes and chains and larded with labels, then I’ll show myself as the true descendent of the great Harry Houdini and that’s when the trouble will really start.