We label things out of necessity. How difficult daily life would be without labels for things and experiences. “I’m going to pick up this object that has a substance for cleaning my teeth and I’m going to squeeze it onto this other object with bristles…” We need labels to make our lives manageable.

But labels can limit what we observe and what we can learn, particularly when those labels get loaded with judgments. When we attached explicit or implied judgments, such as good and bad, to labels, we cut ourselves off from the lessons to be learned.

We all do it. We do it all the time. Just think of all the labels used during this presidential campaign (Republican, Democrat, immigrant, border, deficit, evangelical, etc. etc. etc.) and consider how each is loaded with judgments, either positive or negative.

running in snowA little story: In 1981 we lived in Iowa City. I was consistent jogger at that time, even through the bitter winter. On one particular route I ran out in the country, there was a hill. It wasn’t a big hill, but it was at the precise spot on my route where I first got winded and wanted to turn around and walk back to the truck. The first few times I labored up the hill, filling the cold air with gasps and wheezes and “O God’s.” I saw the hill as a painful obstacle.

After a few days of that I decided to change my approach and attack the hill. I saw the hill as a useful thing, a challenge. Every time I got to the hill, I picked up the pace. Each time I got winded going up the hill, I’d pick up the pace again. Instead of “O, God, a hill,” I approached it with “O good, a hill.”

That worked well for many days, both physically and emotionally. At some point, however, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to label the hill either way. (That’s the kind of thinking I did when I ran). I had seen it as my enemy, an obstacle in my way. I had also seen it as my ally in getting stronger. But I then came to the point of deciding I needed to see it as a hill, one inclined section of a long road I ran. Its intention was neither to slow me down or speed me up. It was a hill that presented me with a unique moment each day I ran it. So from that point on, when I approached the hill, I simply said, “A hill.” Some days as I ran up the hill, I got tired. On other days I got energized.

The hill did not change. I did.