Thursday, February 05, 2009

What's In Your Cookie Jar? How Spiritual Labels Fail Us

What is it about us that insists on labeling ourselves and each other?

We apply and wear all kinds of labels. Christian, Pagan, conservative, liberal, straight, gay, pro-life, pro-choice…you name it and we’ve got a label for it. We seem to have a need to distinguish ourselves from others not of our kind and to identify with those who are. Labels are a kind of shorthand for describing ourselves and our characteristics, for creating sub-groups to filter the big database of human criteria into meaningful chunks of like and unlike.

Are our labels really helping or hurting us?

Labels for people bother me, and nowhere more so than when we try to label beliefs and ideologies. People are complex, evolving, ever-changing repositories of experiences, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. How do you label that accurately? And accuracy really matters; once you apply a label to yourself or others, you create a set of expectations that go with that label. Inaccurate labels lead to inaccurate expectations and assumptions. The matter is complicated by the fact that everyone creates different expectations based on what they know or think they know about the label and how it compares to their own labels.

Once we apply a label to something, we create a static image of its contents. If I put a big jar on the counter and label it “cookies,” you immediately get an image of the contents of the jar. But it’s my jar, and I might or might not actually have cookies in there. I could have nails, receipts, money, marbles…or a few cookies and a lot of crackers, some cake, and a pretzel or two. If I do have cookies, are they oatmeal, chocolate chip, or oatmeal with chocolate chips? Unless you look in my jar, how do you know? And if you do look, does that mean the contents will always be the same and you need never look again? If you look into my cookie jar and find raisin walnut cookies, does that mean that every jar labeled cookies can be expected to contain raisin walnut cookies? And if you think cookie jars are supposed to hold cookies and I decide to put pretzels in mine, do you think I’m living a lie, a pretzel-eating hypocrite? It gets complicated.

It’s the same with our spiritual beliefs. Once we take or apply a label, we are then subject to whatever static image is associated with that label by each person who encounters it. If I say, “I am Christian,” you have a set of expectations about what that means. If I complicate it and add, “I am a Catholic,” (or a Methodist, or an Evangelical, or Fundamentalist, or Episcopal…) you may have further expectations. When I say, “I am a Pagan,” you have an image of what that means. When I say, “I am a Witch,” you may have a different image. What image does atheist bring up? How about agnostic? Jewish? Morman? Muslim? Hindu? Buddhist? Wiccan? Druid? Heathen?

The problem with all those images is that we are all spiritual cookie jars, our own, unique vessels containing whatever we put in them, regardless of what the label says on the outside. If you can show me two Christians, two Wiccans, two Druids, or two agnostics who believe and act exactly the same way, I’ll buy you lunch. Yet, we still use the “label and lump” method, using whatever label they or we apply to categorize and sort and make decisions on whether we agree or not, whether their path has value, whether we have common ground. In doing so, we miss the chance to really see the contents of the jar.

Wouldn’t it be better to lift the lid on the jar? Talk to each other? Ask questions? Wouldn’t we know more about the guy or girl sitting in the next cubicle or living next door if we didn’t think of them as one-word summaries, but actually had a dialog about what they and we believe, what we have in common, where we differ and why? What if we said, “So you’re a _____; what does that mean to you?”

My cookie jar contains the total of my experience and learning so far, and changes constantly. If you ask me what I believe, I can answer you with, “My current understanding is…” If you ask, as so many do, “What are you?” – meaning, “What religion are you?” “What label can I stick on you?” – I don’t have a good answer. My beliefs incorporate bits from a number of paths and belief systems because they match my experience of the world around me and are in harmony with my inner voice. I use “Pagan” or “Witch” because they provide a top-level categorization of my belief system, but there isn’t one label that captures everything I believe. Even if I found the perfect label, I couldn’t be confident that it would remain accurate. Every experience and every bit of new knowledge shapes and reshapes my beliefs all the time.

Labels may be handy for initial pre-sorting, maybe even as a jumpstart to conversation. But if we stop with the label and whatever expectations we associate with that label, we’re missing out on the true contents of the cookie jar. Let’s look beyond the labels – lift the lid and find out what it means to the person wearing it.

You may be surprised at what you find in a jar you thought was just cookies.


  1. I couldn't agree more! Very profound writing. You're making me think of the labels I've put on MYSELF!

  2. Anonymous11:53 AM

    I second Yvonne's sentiment! Great Analogy! ~ zephyr

  3. Completely accurate and a delightfully 'new' way to encapsulate what all of us struggle with! Thank you for being so illustrative and clear in what we ALL do to ourselves and allow others to do to us.

  4. This is a beautiful post upon an important subject, especially since we seem to witness daily the increasing polarization of our world into various political and religious factions. I especially like the analogy of the cookie jar. (Although Now I'm hungry for oatmeal raisin cookies!) One of my teachers - the choreographer for a high school musical many, many moons ago - once observed that everyone discriminates in their thinking, and that's not a bad thing in itself. Human psychology demands we simplify our complex world, just to make sense of things. The danger arises when we cease to challenge our own assumptions about others, when we fail to open the cookie jar, to employ your analogy. My thanks for the reminder.

  5. IndigoSatin8:00 PM

    Sometimes I just want to crawl inside your head and look around. You have an amazing view of life, my friend.


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