Growing Out of Your Labels

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Chalice lighting

We gather together here today,
With all our differences,
With all our strengths and challenges and joys and disappointments,
We come from many different circles of identity,
Creating - in this place - something unique.
A place where the circles and overlap and where all may be at home.
By the light of this flame,
Let us see the love within each heart,
And connect beyond the barriers of identity.
Loving is the highest and truest label of all.

Reading: Now I Become Myself, by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"Hurry, you will be dead before--"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places,
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"hurry, you will be dead before -----"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
or the end of the poem, is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!.....
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move,
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the Sun!

Reading: Half Live, by Stephen Levine

We walk through half our life
as if it were a fever dream
barely touching the ground
our eyes half open
our heart half closed.
Not half knowing who we are
we watch the ghost of us drift
from room to room
through friends and lovers
never quite as real as advertised.
Not saying half we mean
or meaning half we say
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.
Until the fever breaks
and the heart cannot abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

Both of our readings today speak of the journey of life as a process that leads to self-discovery - of finding ourselves. It’s a familiar feeling to me - and maybe to you as well. It took me a long time to really recognise that I was living someone else’s life - following someone else’s expectation - following a path that was laid out for me by other people. Eventually, I veered off that path and found another - one that is more satisfying and meaningful. I don’t believe it is anything like my one true path or that I was destined to do what I am doing now. I only know that it is a better path than the one I was on.

I want to tell you a well-known story about self-discovery - about finding your true self and true identity. Once upon a time, there was a female duck. She lived with many other ducks - her siblings, cousins, and friends - in a lovely pond. It was spring and she laid a nestful of eggs. She began the long wait of sitting on the eggs while her partner brought her small fish and insects to eat. Oddly, one of the eggs looked different from the others. It was much bigger and it was a different colour. The mother duck was puzzled but she decided that she would take care of all her eggs the same no matter what.

And she sat and sat and sat - keeping her eggs warm and safe. One day, she heard a funny sound beneath her - a scritch scritch noise and then some pecking and finally, one wet and tired yellow duckling popped its head out of an egg. A little later, a second emerged in the same way. By the end of that day, five of the eggs had hatched and there were five healthy hungry little yellow ducklings. The funny large egg, however, did nothing. And so, the mother duck got right back in position and sat on that one large egg. Days passed. The mother duck’s partner brought food for her and for all her ducklings, but the ducklings were getting restless. They wanted to go into the pond and paddle around but the mother duckling couldn’t take them. She was determined to wait.

At last, one day the large egg began to make sounds and then the shell cracked a bit and a head popped out. It was the oddest looking duckling anyone had ever seen. It was grey instead of yellow. It had a black beak instead of pink. It has an unusually long neck. The other ducks crowded around and they said ‘that is a weird and very ugly duckling.’ The mother duck wouldn’t hear of it and she treated all of her babies the same. They all learned to paddle and to find food together. The weird and ugly duckling tried its best to quack like the other ducklings but it didn’t come out quite right, so she mostly kept quiet.

As the ducklings grew, the ugly duckling only looked more and more different from the others. She was the wrong colour, the wrong size, the wrong shape, and she didn’t act normal. All the other ducks and duckling teased her. Every time they did, she tried harder and harder to fit in - she held her long neck down. She found mud to put on herself so her now white feathers would match the feathers of the other ducklings. Deep down, though, she didn’t feel normal. She didn’t feel like she fit in.

And then one day a flock of very different birds flew over and landed in the pond. They were large and white and had long necks and black beaks just like the ugly duckling. When she saw them, she was shocked - she realised that maybe she was more like these birds than like her duck family. She swam over to them and dipped under the water to wash off the mud she had used to fit in. The new birds looked at her and clearly recognised her as one of their kind. She asked them what kind of ducks they were. They said they were swans but they immediately started laughing at her horrible accent. She didn’t sound swan-like at all. She didn’t carry herself like a swan. They said ‘nice to meet you’ in a polite but not very sincere way and they flew off again. The ugly duckling went back to what she knew - trying to fit in well with the ducks. Every once in a while, she thought about the swans and a sadness would come over her.

That’s a bummer of an ending isn’t it? Not quite what you expected where the ugly duckling realises she’s a swan, is embraced by them and lives happily and beautifully ever after. And maybe among ducks and swans and other waterfowl, it is easy to escape your labels, but in the world of humans, it is not. The word ‘label’ sounds like superficial thing - a tag that is easy to remove and replace with one that fits better. But our labels go deep. They shape us to fit them. In an experiment where children were randomly labelled more or less intelligent, those labels became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The children labelled intelligent started to perform better in school. The others do not. They saw no reason to try since they were convinced they were limited.

And labels also identify our belonging. Whether we are labelled as duck or dumb or smart or middle class or working class or black or white or gay or straight, we know who our people are. Even though labels always oversimplify and confine us - they do identify who will recognise us a kindred. They may still be cruel and taunt us for not fitting the label well enough, but - like family - we belong. Shedding one label to assume another is anything but easy or painless. Even just moving out of the centre of a label’s definition can earn you condemnation. Perhaps you’ve at some point transgressed the norms of a label and you know the how the label purists can react - using the threat of expulsion to bring you back to a narrow identity. And when you do leave one label circle to join another, there is more trouble ahead.

When I left science and biotech to start training to become a minister, my science colleagues and friends looked at me in a very strange way. They thought I had gone mad. To them, scientist was the identity they had adopted. It was who they were and the community to whom they belonged. Leaving that label would be losing both identity and belonging. I have only retained one friend from the very long science part of my life. And getting into the new label isn’t easy either. There wasn’t a “Oh, you’re a swan and so are we - let’s embrace” moment. The ministers looked at me and thought - maybe someday you can be one of us. I was in between labels - neither duck nor swan - scientist nor minister. It was a very hard time for me. I had no identity and no belonging.

Our identities matter deeply to us - even when they don’t fit so comfortably - they still define where we belong. It is a deeply painful thing to leave behind even when the other ducks treat you badly. How then can we break free from a label that confines us and causes us pain? How can we leave the community of ducks to become a swan?

Another ending to the ugly duckling story goes like this: one day, the ugly duckling had had enough. She flew away and visited pond after pond. None seemed right - there were ducks or swans or moorhens and she still felt she didn’t fit with any of those groups. And then, she landed in one special pond - it was a radically inclusive community of waterfowl. Every kind of swimming bird was there living together. It didn’t matter whether they looked like a swan but acted like a duck - every individual was accepted and loved for who they were. The ugly duckling became strong in herself. She had at last found her community.

An important answer to the question of how we can deal with our labels and the identities that confine us is community. Radically-inclusive community. There are many meanings of the word community, but what I mean here is a very deep kind of community - a community where we are accepted and loved as we are - a community where others feel joy as we change and offer encouragement rather than condemnation. Perhaps this is what Stephen Levine, in his poem ‘Half Live’, means:
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.
Until the fever breaks
and the heart cannot abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.

When we are truly ourselves, there is no concern for a true self, and no need for those that seek to label us and narrow our identities. There is no patience with not saying what we mean or for half-closed hearts, there remains only a passion for the one thing that matters most, and that is love. Perhaps this is the true destination - a love without labels.

May it be so.

Closing words

Beyond the labels that connect and divide
Beyond the identities that confine us
There is a way of universal understanding
A way of compassion
A way of unity
It is the way of love