Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I want to love, again.

Youth cannot be reclaimed, and I would not want to, but increasingly I feel a need—a calling, perhaps—to find a way to reach back and recapture one aspect of my youth: a willingness to be a little naive, to take people as they are, rather than as I believe I can classify them. It was how I lived before I became very engaged with politics and religion and chose labeling over loving.

Dorothy Day famously said to her Catholic Worker friends and followers, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

It is a statement that some take literally, going so far as to suggest that, as her cause gains momentum thanks to a recent vote of support by the USCCB, the bishops are moving against Day’s expressed wishes.

Well, the thing is in the hands of the Holy Spirit, now, but I think what Day had in mind was something along the lines of Søren Kierkegaard’s “When you label me, you negate me.”

When we label anyone, we immediately do them an injusticeeven if the label seems accurate. We shortchange their story. We open them up to caricature and to the misunderstanding that comes with it. Labels reduce all of our complexities and beautiful human nuances into easily negated “types” and turn our efforts to communicate with each other into punchlines. Or outright swipes.

I wish I could say that in my online writing I have managed to resist the temptation to label others and thus turn them into discredited, ghostly cartoons that have little to do with their human realities, but alas, I have trod that path all too happily, only stepping off it when one of my sons challenged me to define the “thems” and “theys” of my rants. I could not, of course, but in making the attempt I discovered how readily—even eagerly—I had been discounting human beings about whom I actually knew nothing, and that my pre-judging of them meant that I was, yes, prejudiced.

Mindful of that humiliating lesson, I have been trying to break that habit of broad denunciation; I have come to detest words like “progressive” and “liberal” and “conservative” and “lefty” and “right-winger” and the ease with which we throw these divisive labels about for the express purpose of insta-discrediting one another. Our propensity to label-and-dismiss each other is quickly leading our nation and our Church toward dangerous cliffs, and though we have gleefully turned each other into cartoons, we will not be able to reclaim solid ground from the thin air, once we’re launched. I accuse myself of assisting in this careening madness, and I want off.

Kierkegaard’s “negating label” was brought home to me recently, during an exchange with a friend that grew a little testy when he insisted that I accept his labeling of me as a “right-winger” and allow him to therefore frame my ideas according to script. He seemed to think it very unreasonable of me to refuse, but refuse I did, for two reasons:

First, because if people are going to insist on labels, I want to reclaim “classical liberal” from its dustbin. To my way of thinking, it gives voice to the Church’s own interest in the protection of civil liberties; similarly it champions neither the sort of rampant capitalism that ignores the dignity of the human person, nor totalitarian ideas of governance. In seeking balance, I think it most accurately reflects those of us who are imperfectly striving to move beyond any label but “Catholic.”

Secondly, I am myself done flinging about the “thems” and “theys” in order to buttress my opinions upon the foam of easy caricature. Because of that, I will resist being labeled, which only encourages others to travel that treacherous path. When I see the sins and errors of one newsmaker or one church, or one politician or one political party being obsessed over while similar sins of their opposite number are excused or ignored, I will speak up about it, and when I suspect the public is being handed an agenda-laden bill of goods meant to promote dubious policy, I will say so, and I will not consent to anyone declaring what that “makes” me, so they can therefore ignore me.

Like Day, I will not be so easily dismissed.

But I will work toward doing better. I will forego the expedient labeling that permits others to wink and nudge and roll eyes at someone and therefore negate them.

A few weeks ago I wrote that if we wish to help the world come to rights, we must “bring on Apocalypse.” This is a step in that direction—a baby step—but it is the only real hope we have of saving our country and our Church.

Dorothy Day also said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

The labels are tiresome and played-out; they have brought us to a desolate place.

I want to love, again.

Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here .


Elizabeth Scalia, “ Begin the Apocalypse

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles