On Tuesday I got into what was for me an embarrassing situation. It was late in the workday; not the time to begin a new project. This OCD girl just needed to get her in-basket completely cleared out, though. I pulled out the last remaining item – a video game. It had been sent to me via the internal courier service that schleps materials between the various libraries in our network. This video game was missing its check-out case. Would I please make new artwork for it and charge the patron the appropriate amount for the loss?
I stared at that thing for a full five minutes before I even began to understand what it was. My confusion must have been evident because my coworker told me that she’d handled something similar to that before and would take care of it if I wanted her to. I waved her off, nasty inferiority complex coming to the fore. I’m not an idiot. I didn’t need her to do anything for me.
As it turns out, I did need her help. The library requesting this new artwork had failed to send the display case which contains vital things like the barcode and sequence number. I knew something was missing. I knew I didn’t have all the parts. I just couldn’t figure out exactly what the problem was. My coworker quickly grasped what had happened and again offered to take care of it for me.
I felt so stupid.
There is little else that I hate more than feeling stupid.
As I drove home that night, struggling to hold back my tears of embarrassment and shame, I wondered aloud who I would be if I wasn’t smart. What a leap to make, right? A case of simple end-of-the-day fatigue, of normal humanness, shouldn’t send one into a tailspin involving questions of identity. But it can, and it did.
Labels, even positive ones, leave a deep imprint. Many things come easily to me. I’m used to being known as the intelligent, capable one. When I’m confronted with a task or a situation that I don’t understand, fear rises. What if I’m not smart? What if “x” person is smarter? Where does that put me in the pecking order?
I have based much of sense of self on being smart. It’s imprisoning. I don’t try my hand at things I am not confident I’d be good at. I gave up playing basketball in high school because I enjoyed being involved in the drama club more, yes, but also because I wasn’t the best player. I loved basketball. I don’t do much cooking because I don’t enjoy it, yes, but also because I’ve made so many mistakes. And so many others are better at it. I’ve thought about making jewelry, but I’m convinced I’d only make ugly things. I have a confident speaker and teacher hiding inside me, trapped by fear of failure. At all costs, I must be smart. Or at least appear to be. So I stick to the safe road and never try new things.
All of this circled around in my mind in the space of a few seconds. Other labels joined smart – Reserved. Unemotional. Witty. Dependable. Plain. Intense. Afraid.
The thing about labels is that they aren’t always untrue. A bag of flour is a bag of flour. Does “flour” really capture the essence, though? Think about all the things you can do with flour. It’s absolutely essential. What if labels, instead of being concrete definitions, could be starting places? What if “smart” could be “willing to learn” and “ready to try?” What if “intense” could be “feels deeply” and “passionately active?” Labels can be slapped on you in abuse, and those should be rejected with the grace of God (and sometimes the help of a professional). But these true labels…maybe they just need to be seen from a different perspective.
When I woke up the next morning, I no longer felt so stupid about the video game. I could see the parts clearly in my head and I knew what was missing. (It’s amazing what distance and sleep can do for you). I also knew that I had reached a new stage of this journey in the valley. Identity cannot be based on any label other than “in Christ.” I can’t look to other people to define who I am and I can’t even look to myself, really. He has to tell me about me – and I have to trust Him. There will always be someone smarter, someone prettier, someone wealthier, someone funnier. There will always be times when I really don’t understand, when I do need help, when I don’t have the answers. I will never find the peace I crave if that constantly throws me.
Labels. We’ve all got them and we all give them. Our self-imposed prisons are thickly plastered with them. I think Jesus longs to be invited in to either cast them in His light or tear them apart.
For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.