We like labels. Democrat, Republican. Christian, Atheist. Attachment parent, Authoritarian parent. Putting people in categories in our mind is how we make sense of them, how we understand them. This is not usually done maliciously; it’s not usually even done consciously. We also label ourselves to give ourselves a sense of belonging, of identity.
But what happens when the labels become constraining, limiting, and defining? What happens when they become caricatures of real people, real positions, real thoughts? When they become derogatory terms that we can sling at each other to avoid dialogue and solution-finding?
Is there room in the middle?
Is there room for a person who believes that life begins at conception and also believes that welfare programs are necessary to help the poor and unemployed live functioning lives? Who believes that preserving life is important but just the first step? That a life of just surviving is not a life with dignity?
I once sat in front of a student who was describing her anguish…after having an abortion as a teenager for an unwanted baby, she had a miscarriage for a very much wanted baby as a college student. Imagine her pain, her questioning if this was some kind of punishment or some cruel joke… the pain. How could anyone respond but with compassion?
Is there room for a person whose heterosexual marriage and religious beliefs about marriage are not threatened by legalizing same-sex marriage? Who believes that a homosexual lifestyle is not God’s design and also believes that this should not be the defining belief of Christianity?
I once sat with my friend who had just broken up with his boyfriend after learning about his infidelity. He was heartbroken and wondered aloud if he would ever hurt less than he did right now. I had little to offer other than the hope that in time his heart would hurt less and a hug. How could I respond but with compassion?
Is there room for a parent who cosleeps and responds to infant cries and also uses timeouts and teaches her children to respect her authority?
I once left my infant to cry, trying to teach her to sleep independently. I cried as I heard her cry, and it didn’t feel right. We changed plans, we became more flexible, and we learned from our daughter and our mistakes. How should I respond to other parents but with compassion?
Is there room for a conservative Christian who also believes in social justice? Who loves liturgy and finds stability in tradition and also sees that liturgy can become empty and tradition can become an excuse to no longer think for yourself? For a Lutheran wannabe Catholic who reads St. Augustine and Mother Teresa along with Francis Chan and Jen Hatmaker? Who believes that Jesus is who he said he is and also that it is each person’s inherent right and gift to travel their own spiritual journey?
I’ve been as conservative as evangelicals can be; I’ve had a brief stint as an atheist before considering myself an agnostic for several years; and now I find myself coming to a place of peace in Christian tradition and historical theology. I’ve done my share of judging and been judged plenty. How can I not respond to your spiritual journey with compassion?
Is there room in the middle? There is. There has to be. Even now as I quake in my boots at the thought of publishing this, I think that maybe there are some of you reading who might be relating to not quite fitting in the categories laid out for you. When we each admit how fluid and ever-changing we are, how imperfect, how human; how can we respond to each other but with compassion?
I think more of us are actually in the middle than we realize. If everyone everywhere fit into one big venn diagram, I think the majority of us would have at least one foot in the “same” category. When we take away the pressure to whole-heartedly champion one political party, one religious view, one parenting approach, I think we would all realize that we’re a bit more complex than the labels allow.
And what if we relished our complexity, and used it to find solutions to vexing problems, to show love and mercy to one another, and to discover differences as interesting and fun? What if instead of like-mindedness, we sought out and fostered environments where everyone, and I mean everyone, was accepted and their opinions welcomed? And what if we were brave and put our strange, probably inconsistent, not set in stone, middle opinions out there, and gave others a chance to accept and learn from us?