We live in a world where everyone wants to label everything. Far from it for us to admit to shades of grey, things all have to be black or white. A thing is either this, or it is that. At best we can concede that this has a bit of that tendencies, but for the most part, when we define something, we have a pretty good notion that the words in the English language do a suitable enough job of defining what it is we’re looking at, and we stick to them.

To define, from the Latin, literally means to limit something. When you start to assign attributes to things, you’re saying that this can’t be that, it can only be this. When you say grass is green, you’re saying that grass cannot be blue, or red, or black, etc. But some grass is yellow, and if you spill paint on it, that grass could have a tasteful, subtle off-white colouring. So you could say some grass is green, some grass is yellow, and some grass is soft eggshell white. There are few enough strains of grass and paint colours that to define the colour of grass isn’t that strenuous.

However, when you get to people, to define becomes impossible. There are far too many of us, with all of our own individual quirks that make each and every one of us unique. And that’s just those of us alive now. Think of the billions that have already died, and the trillions yet to be born.

Even to bring it down to one person is impossible. Jean-Paul Sartre describes the human condition as two fold: one part set and finite (the sum of our experiences) and the infinite potential we have in front of us. As a free creature capable of doing pretty close to anything humanly possible, to set a limit on our infinite freedom is (as Sartre would call it) living in bad faith. If you claim to be, say, a good waiter, and then live your life as a good waiter, serving people their water before even they themselves know they want it, sure you’re a good waiter, but you’re denying yourself your freedom of being anything beyond a good waiter. You’re not a good waiter; you’re not any label, because you can be anything.

This would apply to every aspect of yourself you might be defined as: happy person, sad person, funny person, handsome, ugly, straight, gay…

So why do we label people when it is impossible to do so accurately?

Because we have to. Our brain works by understanding labels. We think in definable concepts, not impossible to nail down abstract ones. If someone asks you about yourself, and you say, “oh, I don’t believe in labels” what you are telling this person is that the grass isn’t green, nor is it yellow or blue; the grass is a colour that doesn’t exist. In your mind, try to imagine a colour that doesn’t exist. You may give up after you get to the sort of murky brown one.

So pick something. Anything. If you want the grass to be fuchsia, that’s perfectly fine. If you can find a way to explain the history of how that grass became fuchsia, and what that means to the world around it, then you can be relatable instead of alienating. If you’re trying to explain to someone about something they have never heard of before, remember that it’s not their fault that it’s difficult, they’re just trying to imagine a colour they’ve never come across.

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