Not Loving the Label!

Have you ever found yourself labeling those who are different from you? I have. I grew up in the 60’s and became a teen in the 70’s; it was a predominately white culture where it was normal for me to hear words like fag, queer, and from time to time the ‘n’ word. I never thought much of it, no one seemed to. My world was small and the demographic was mostly unicultural. It was the way we interacted. But I must say that those three words, as a boy, sounded unusual to me. But I was never actually aware of anyone who fit in those categories, at least not for a long time. As for the ‘n’ word, I would go to the corner store and ask the owner to fill up a little paper sack with 10 cents worth of ‘nigger babies!’ What? Yep, those delicious black licorice candies in the shape of little people were called nigger babies. That was my world. And I never knew the effect that these labels would have on me as I grew up. 

The demeaning label that I heard most was ‘fag or faggot’. Boys would sometimes call each other that in jest, but it was meant, in a weird sort of way, to degrade the masculinity of the other. The label was powerful. I recall a conversation I had years later in a Chiang Mai restaurant. A visiting friend found out I loved watching the Amazing Race on television. The current season at the time featuered a gay couple. That was rare then. As I was always a week behind watching the series, when the visitor let it slip that the gay couple had won,  I responded in disgust, “No way, not those fags!” The words came out so quickly that they surprised even me. I had believed in the label.

Months after that conversation about the gay couple, I was at the Don Muang airport waiting for guests to come through the arrival’s gate in Bangkok. I saw a white man dressed as a woman. I immediately went into critical mode. “Man, that’s a white guy! Shoot! And he can’t even put lipstick on right!” As I silently mocked him, another inner voice spoke to me, “Peter, would you be so offended if that was your own son?” It felt like a spiritual slap in the heart!  The phrase ‘if it was your son’ woke me up to my bias against the gay community. I was guilty of seeing that man as less than part of the human family, judging him as somewhat unworthy, all because of the lens of my demeaning label.

I am Canadian. We are known for their tolerance. So when NHL commentator Don Cherry castigated immigrants to Canada on live television as, “You people,” it riled up a lot of people. How could he talk like that! Don was upset because, in his view, the immigrant population disrespected Canada by not  wearing a poppy during the Remembrance Day holiday. He called them, “You people!” Then off he went about these people not appreciating the sacrifices our soldiers made to give us Canadians ‘milk and honey.’ Soon it was frontline news worldwide! To the surprise of some, Sportsnet fired Don faster than a Bobby Hull slapshot!  To a lot of boomers it seemed like a lot of hoopla about nothing. But was it just a slip of the tongue? We’ll never really know, but what we do know is that no one appreciates being dehumanized with a label. 

And this is the thing, we all have used labels at some time or another. Throughout our lifetime we have unconsciously accumulated these biases and, for the most part, are unaware of them. Those sneaky biases snuck through the backdoor of daily conversations, politics, culture, and even religion. Religious and political leaders disguise labels and biases as concerns. One is worried that their followers will be contaminated by too much relationship with the world, while the other stokes our fears by repeating their concerns for the safety of the country, families, jobs, and the future. 

“If we let all these people in they will make it worse for all of us!”

So take a look at us now, thousands of years of humanity living together on earth and we still see whole people groups through the lens of demeaning labels. We seemed to have forgotten our history lessons about the pogroms and genocides and religious wars! Here in France the majority of descendants of immigrants still feel like they can never truly be French. Why? White French culture told them to wear the label ‘not-really-french’.” It’s too easy to see that labeling remains present in every realm of life. And honestly they do nothing to bring healing to our world. 

I’ve had to come to grips with my own biases and labels and change the way I saw certain groups of people. It could be that, like me, you do too! Maybe the way you see gays, asylum seekers, overweight people, handicapped folks, old people, blacks, and any race for that matter, etc, as nuisances at best and unworthy at worst. 

What should we do then? Begin by reminding yourself of how easy it is to fear those who are different than us. Start there. Do you harbour fears and biases towards those who look different than you or believe passionately in things you don’t? If you do then realize that any labels you use will only divide the human race. It begins with avoidance and usually ends in some kind of judgement. We divide the world into good and bad, worthy and unworthy, etc. The last step is the one we most need to hear. Please listen to the words of Jesus in my paraphrase, “It’s easy to love those who like you back. Nothing special about that at all. But I say go and love even those to whom you have given the label ‘wrong’, ‘unworthy’, or ‘enemy.’” Can’t find any advice much better than this in today’s bookstores! 

I have had to let go of my labels, many times in fact. It took time and a deep look at my own heart. I finish with a story of a boy, a son, who came out as gay. He was 15 years old when he wrote to Patricia and I something like this, “Dear Mom and Dad, I need to tell you that I am gay!” That day my world was turned upside down. Though my label of ‘gay’ had started to be dismantled in a Bangkok airport, I was still holding on to the idea that gay people are just damaged by sin. I told my son that evening he was mistaken, that he was straight. I took him rock climbing and did more father things with him. But he remained gay. We took him to counseling. The counselor, a christian, sat us down and said, “Your son is really gay. Love him without trying to change him into your image.” And through love, ours for him and his for us, we have learned to never look at gay people through the lens of dissapointment, derision or scorn. 

It’s time we drop the demeaning labels that have to do with gender, race or religion and chose to love unconditionally all people.  This has become for me the only way to live in the neighborhood!

Joel has taught us many things, one being how to see people and accept them as they are. Most importantly we are learning how to love unconditionally all those that don’t fit into our neat categories of ‘correctness.’

Love’s Energy

Love is perfect they say and I believe it. My imperfections didn’t turn your love away. Thankfully they didn’t disqualify me from receiving it. If I could be perfect, I surely would. I’d be more easier to love and more worthy too. But…. I am flawed and full of contradictions. My guess is that it goes both ways for us. That’s why we need perfect love, always. It is the energy that moves us to walk together, not lagging behind one another unless to admire, and not moving in front unless to open a door and show the way. Metaphorically, and for real, this perfect love is always reaching out for your hand. Whether near or far from view, we are together, side by side, no matter what circumstances gets strewn in our path. Sometimes, though, I may have to exert love’s energy a little more to reach for you. Sometimes you have to do the same for me. And in doing so we experience love’s energy, watching to see where it takes us next!

When We Never Wanted to Escape.

I tried one of those short colored background posts on Facebook. It was a marriage post and it went like this:

FBPETE“It started when beauty captured you 😚 You married 😍 You saw flaws 🤨 Slowly you forgot what made you fall in love😢”

It didn’t take long for the first comments to arrive, “Peter, are you okay?” My wife jumped in quickly to explain all was well with us and that I was simply preparing to speak at a marriage. The thread gave me and others a good laugh. Not as hilarious, though, is that I can attest also to the truth of my 86 character/ post including the emojis.

“It started when beauty captured you 😚

I fell hard for Patricia, she was so clever, had a great sense of humour, was athletic and her build reflected it. Not to mention her black shiny hair on her white freckled face, it all captured me. I joke with her about the time we decided to go to the indoor pool and I saw her in a bathing suit for the first time. My mouth dropped to the floor, hubba hubba, this was my girl!  And we had so much fun finding ways to be together in a school where holding hands was considered too much contact!

You married 😍

We did. We were passionate. We couldn’t wait for the day to hear the bells ring. I graduated from college. We married a week later. We were twenty.

You saw flaws 🤨

Too many couples call it quits because they begin to focus on the negatives. Patricia and I eventually lived out this scenario for a long stretch of time. I began to notice it, slowly, during our years in Thailand. (They are not years that we look back on fondly.) Patricia wasn’t happy being there. I told her that we would stay no matter what. It was the stubborn dutch blood in me speaking! And besides God told us to go there! We were obeying the call! That strong-arming approach did not help and I wasn’t listening to her heart. Her respect for me, as I went globetrotting around Southeast Asia to ‘serve the Lord’ and others, plummeted. I began to see her simmering anger in the forms of complaints and quick mood changes. At times it exploded all over me with shorter and fewer peaceful times in between.

You may have heard the axiom that says you will always see what you are looking for. For my part I  become adept to seeing the unlikable in my chosen partner. “Why is she so angry all the time? Why did she look at me like that? Can’t she ever be happy?” I got good at seeing what I was looking for and saw it all the time. Perhaps she did the same for me. I’ll let her tell her side of the story another time. Yes, our eyesight focused on the negatives, the flaws, and it became a deeply imbedded mindset that slanted towards the negative.

Slowly you forgot what made you fall in love😢”

The good Lord has seen it fit to keep the both of us on this planet into our fifties.  You can guess already by context that we are still together! I attribute that to two things; 1. my stubborn Dutch roots that went down deep enough to hang on to my wedding day commitment, and 2. fear. I thought I would lose everything I loved; my work and reputation. Ugh!!!

But we said those words, “Till death do us part…” That required an ungodly amount of stubbornness! And it called for hours and hours of long hard talks. Neither one of us really thought that killing each other was a good option, though we joked that it was the only way we would leave each other!  So what other options were there? Option One was the hard one: stick it out. There were days – long ones where our emotions ran amuck and  this option was stifling, at best, and completely joyless. We lost the beauty of Pete and Pat! We lost sight of each other. The raising of five kids in a polluted Bangkok crammed with cars, motorbikes and taxis didn’t help. The daily grind was grinding our love to smithereens. We forgot what made us fall in love. And we started not caring. “Oh God is this my life?”
Our tiny daughter Amanda mouthed this phrase (mimicking what she had heard her mother say over and over) “Oh God is this my life” one day while play acting with her two dolls.  Our life. Patricia longed for a better life. Years of resentment were eating her soul and identity. The lack of perspective, positivity and joy darkened the majority of her days with a blasé going-through-the-motions. Often I heard the words,”Oh God is this my life?” I felt it keenly.

PetepatinvadeThe kids felt it too. Amanda could repeat her words perfectly with the same tone. And I resented the joylessness of my option, stick it out. I would do it. I didn’t like where we were headed. But I would be a martyr if called for.

My facebook post didn’t allow me to add more characters. But there is an Option Two: Change the way you see. 

When you have tried digging yourself out of a hole that only got deeper with each shovel full change seems, well, pretty darn impossible. I know that feeling! We tried some digging with counselling. It helped some. But we found ourselves back in the hole again. Bouts of anger still flared, yes, less and less, but still some scary moments. Distance between us, like a phlegmatic sea and its uneven rhythms, increased and decreased and increased again. It’s hard to change.

But not impossible.

You may be reading this and asking for the key to, “How did you change?” Yes, the key. More like hours of honestly looking at ourselves and then hours looking for the good in each other.  Hours of being miserable and not wanting to repeat that.  And one of the turning points,  a key, was to go way back, try and graciously remember the initial attraction, those things that captured us in love’s grasp in the first place. When we never wanted to escape.

Those attractive things hadn’t disappeared completely. Our skin, of course, wasn’t as vibrantly taut and our hair began to thin and grey, but we were still essentially the same inside. We were different versions of the same. It was hidden for a long time from our eyes under expectation, resentment and indifference, but it could be resurrected! Our keen eyesight for the negative caused us blindness for too long. We dealt with the resentment and the anger and the indifference and stubborn selfishness. Slowly we rediscovered the beauty of each other. It rekindled a joy. This sounds simple. It is. But it’s not easy. And it took us a lot of time.
So my short little Facebook post was not so much prompted by preparing to officiate at a marriage as my wife suggested. I was thinking about some couples I know going through  staggering storms.  I stand with you and the many couples who wonder if it is possible for two people in our day and age to stay together until ‘death do us part.‘ I’d like to shout to you and them, “We made it through many storms, you can too!” Hope you can find some honesty and hope for you in this blog.

Recent PEter eand Pat in ParisSome of you cannot turn the page. “It is finished” is written on your marital story. There are probably good reasons for that. For Patricia and I, we are glad that we are still writing chapters as a couple. We had to learn to move past the flaw seeking and look again at what made us fall in love in the first place.  We had to forgive and then bury the awful, and learn from the lean years so we could again be that couple that laughs, talks about everything and nothing, and loves into the sunset.