We all recognize our favorite products by their colors, symbols or packaging labels. If we are accustomed to using a certain product, we may not give it up even when changes are made to it. A very familiar label is that of Coca-Cola. Introduced in 1886, it’s a product with worldwide recognition.
When Coca-Cola first arrived on the scene, it was a variation of a popular type of drink called coca wine. It was soon marketed as a patent medicine and was touted to be a “good for your health” cure-all. It was said it could cure diseases, stop migraines and even cure morphine addiction. At that time, it contained 5 ounces of coca leaf per gallon. It was literally loaded with cocaine. At one point, it had a mix of 9 milligrams of cocaine per glass. (Source: Wikipedia, retrieved Nov. 4, 2009.)
After some debate, Coca-Cola, now under new ownership, changed forever. It would now be made with spent leaves of the Coca plant and would contain only traces of cocaine. Even today, it is flavored with cocaine-free coca leaf extract.
How, we may wonder, did the regular drinkers of Coca-Cola feel about that change? Many were used to sipping this refresher until they were literally buzzed. Now it would merely be a soda pop. While some people did quit drinking the cola, most people stood by the label. They knew this product, had been drinking it for some time and would not turn away from it.
In 1985, the brand now known as Coke decided to try a new recipe called “New Coke.” Though some preferred its taste to original Coke, it was rejected. Why? Long-time consumers didn’t like the change. The label was firmly established in their minds, and the change was not acceptable to them.
What about the mental labels we create? How are we at letting go of our preset ideas of what or how things should be?
Have you ever labeled someone? Labels are sticky and difficult to remove once placed; we often apply them very quickly without a second thought. We have all been guilty of it: maybe it was someone who was short with you and you labeled them a crab. It could have been a person who worked with you and you labeled them bossy. It’s not always the big labels that stand out. Words like gossip, chatty, egotistical and so on are all labels that can cause friction for a person or persons.
Once labels are placed, how often do we really try to remove them? If we are aware and try to remove the label, are we truly peeling it all away? Labels are glued on pretty well, and as we scrape them off, they often only peel, leaving remnants behind. The remnants can be seemingly impervious to our attempts to remove them, but remove them we must if we want a clean surface to work with. We really want to replace the negative label with a fresh one, one that is positive and welcoming.
I once knew a little boy who had too much energy for his own good. Because of this, he would often unintentionally play too rough and, because he didn’t know his own strength, other children would sometimes get hurt. The boy was always sorry and really tried to be gentler, but it was too late. Parents of other children became concerned and labeled this little boy a bully. They began to watch more closely when the boy was around and would yell at him if he even looked like he might cause harm. The boy, in turn, became very touchy and would get upset and hurt. He knew he hadn’t done anything and was not even given a chance, but his getting upset only made him look more like a bully. Right or wrong, there it was: a huge “bully” label pasted across the child.
The interesting thing was what happened next. The children, having so often seen their parents’ reactions to the boy, began blaming him as well. If they got hurt, it was the boy’s fault; if there was some bad behavior by the children, they told their parents it was the boy who started it. The parents always believed their own child—why wouldn’t they? It matched the label, after all. The bully label was stuck and not likely to be removed anytime soon. It was sad.
Four years passed and the boy was still full of energy, but no longer having the same issues he had previously had with the children. The children were very forgiving and had no issue with the boy, yet the parents could or would not let it go. They could not remove the label they had put on this boy so many years before. They continued to discuss the boy with disdain, as if it were still four years ago. Even though he had not displayed any of his previous behavior, the label was stuck.
Labels can become permanent, if we are not careful, and they can potentially prevent us from forming strong relationships with others. I remember my first church experience as a married woman. It was a new church for my husband and me, and I was scoping potential friends out. As I did this, I labeled a few couples by only a few of their actions, actually saying I could not become friends with such people. Thankfully, I did not allow those labels to stick, and my husband and I ended up becoming very close friends with those same couples.
Peeling away the labels
Christ taught us that we are to love one another (John 15:17), and in Ephesians 4:2 we are told to be “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.” We cannot show that love if we hold on to those negative labels. A negative label placed on another can cause us to retain bad thoughts towards them, even if they have changed.
Labels are easily applied, but it is a bit more difficult to peel them away. But peel we must! Even if we scrape it away a bit at a time, we must keep working on it until it is completely gone. If we do not strip it all away, what we leave behind may cause us to create another label to replace it: not a new one, but the same old one we had on before. Not letting go of preconceived notions can cause festering and we can feel the need to replace the original label. We must take the time to soak that label in love and eventually it will come away to reveal clearly what’s underneath.
Giving a person the time to change or realizing we may have mislabeled them in the first place is a good place to start. And guess what? They may not be the one who changes at all. Often it is ourselves who have to adjust. If we are not forgiving, who knows what kind of label may be placed onto us in the future? No one wants to be negatively labeled, and we have all been guilty of doing it at some point or another.
The goal is to be the example, the one who steps out of the familiar line with the familiar crowd—to be the first to start peeling away the labels, even if it is only a strip at a time. It means saying yes, maybe I’ll give this new product (person) a chance. Maybe I have missed what’s underneath by only reading the label.
(In part 2 of “Labels,” the subject of group and individual labels created by deeds or pasts is further discussed.)
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