Labels

Our Prison Fellowship re-entry class once discussed knowing and loving ourselves. To illustrate a point, I took an extra name tag and wrote what others said about me. I reflected on my childhood, then took a name tag and wrote “Poor Reader.” I took that tag and placed it on my shirt, just below my original label, “Rick.” Then I took another tag, thought, and then wrote what kids called me growing up: “Trailer Trash.” Then added more tags.

I asked the men to add their own labels. They began to share their names with the class. One-by-one they started to raise their hands, Dumb, Stupid, Lowlife, Thug, Fool, Idiot, No. 352___, Jobless, Poor, Slow, Loser, Addict, Amount-to-nothing, In-prison-or-dead, Hopeless. The names went on and on. We filled our shirts with all the names that we’ve been called.

Names written, we prayed. We prayed that God would show us Himself, and ourselves. We asked that our dialog make hidden mysteries present and that our conversation would invite His presence.

After praying, we raised our heads and everyone looked forward. Then I tore off the label “trailer trash,” ripped it to shreds, and then asked the men to remove one of their tags. One after another, we removed the labels and tore them to pieces. Loser, ripped; Fool, ripped; Idiot, ripped. The room filled with the noise of ripping paper.

We removed each label until only our real names were left. Then I said, “Who are you?”

My Dad’s arrest began in me an identity crisis. I am blood of his blood, bone of his bone, my DNA, my dad. Who was I now? What did others think of me? What becomes of my dreams? Would I be blessed? Am I capable? Am I worthy? What happened to my confidence? What course was I on? My hopes? My choice? My life? My love? My happiness? Would life ever be the same? Was there a God who knew me and my dad; a God who loved us?

You cannot be happy and hate yourself. Martin Buber observed: “We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.” It is okay to see yourself as the unique image of God you are, healthy to realize who you are at the core of your being, flourishing to love yourself with vulnerable perception. Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.  It’s when it’s excessive that there is a problem.

We should not abhor ourselves—that’s not humility. Instead, we should sanctify ourselves through complete love. It is good, not evil, to love and know thyself. Self-love is necessary for other love. Selfless love and love of self can exist at the same time—must exist the same. Kierkegaard expressed with clarity: “If anyone, therefore, will not learn from Christianity to love himself in the right way, then neither can he love his neighbor…To love one’s self in the right way and to love one’s neighbor are absolutely analogous concepts, are at the bottom one and the same.”

I closed the class with a story about my name. When my father went away, I hated my name. I felt such shame from it.

After I encountered the answer to true happiness, I found myself watching my daughter’s volleyball game. She was killing it on the court, diving, hitting, smiling and cheering. Through all the suffering years, the one thing I always delighted in was watching my kids play.

We were about half way through the tournament, when all of a sudden, my eyes focused on the word on her jersey: “Duncan.” At the sight of that name, I had a sudden sense of pride and satisfaction. Better yet, there was fulfillment, because that is different from satisfaction. I felt such a rush of unexpected happiness to be a “Duncan.”

After the game finished, Chloe ran to the sidelines and sat next to me. She was glowing with energy and elation. She reached over and put her head on my shoulder and said, “Dad, I love my name, doesn’t it look great on my jersey?”

I felt the chill of God’s voice in my ear. A white stone with a new name on it.

Her words were both a sign and an instrument of God’s grace. I said, “Chloe, I love our name.”

Identity is best when shared. Or, perhaps, identity does not exist until it is shared.

**Based on the book: Opening Happiness

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