This weekend was hard. I found out that the little boy that played kick-the-can and hide-and-go-seek, rode his bike up and down the street, and explored the ins and outs of Elephant Rock with me when we were children passed away. The face in my memory with a big smile and huge dimples is not like the face labeled “fugitive” that is being flashed all over the media. The only label I’ve attached to the boy from my childhood is friend, and that’s the label I’ll choose to keep associated with him.
For many people, the labels people attach to them mold them, shape them, and define their self worth. Geek. Jock. Princess. Fatty. Stupid. Shallow. Mine was “Brat.” While I admit that my behavior growing up may have contributed to this title, it wasn’t a label that I felt defined me. Unfortunately, some people don’t react to their labels the way I did. Some people carry the label with them, allowing it to hold them back and keep them from reaching their potential. My friend was one of those people.
We drifted apart over the past few years. Occasionally I’d hear updates from mutual friends. He’s in jail. He’s on parole. He had a baby. He seems happy. He’s doing good. He’s in trouble again. And then the most crushing update of all came early Friday morning: He’s no longer with us. He took his own life.
And quite unexpectedly, my heart hurt. I couldn’t control the tears that streamed down my face. The more information I had, the more I cried. Sobbing at times for my childhood friend that had a crush on Mrs. Land in second grade; that was the only one that didn’t make fun of me for going home when our friends started smashing pumpkins on Halloween night when we were eight; that always asked how my brother was doing in the Marines; that smiled, even on days that would break many of us; that was not the monster I see portrayed on the front page of the news; and that befriended everyone he met with complete disregard for the labels others placed on them.
As I scrolled through the news articles and talked with friends, I noticed a stark difference in the labels next to his name. Those who knew him labeled him as loyal, kind, funny, loving, and good. Those who didn’t know him chose different labels. Thug. Criminal. Fugitive. Drug Dealer. Deadbeat. I’ve seen all of those labels attached to his name over the past 48 hours. And I admit, if I hadn’t known him, I may have placed one of those labels next to his name in a headline as well. But, he wasn’t any of those things to me. To me he was just “friend.”
Seeing those labels next to someone that I cared for hurt. It bothered me. I sat and wondered what labels people would attach to me if all of my poor choices and bad decisions were laid out next to a terrible photo with few details of my life, or the good choices I had made along the way. I might see shallow, greedy, judgmental, unkind, bitter, or proud. Those moments, the moments that I inevitably regret later on, are not the moments that define my life. They are not the labels I choose to let stick.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. – Romans 3:23
Christ himself defied labels when he chose the thugs, deadbeats, and criminals of the world to teach, to dine with, and to forgive. He saw past the bad decisions and misplaced labels on those closest to him, and he looked at their hearts. Each one struggled against flesh, and yet many would go on to establish the Church, spreading Christ’s message of forgiveness and repentance among the nations of the earth.
Max Lucado wrote a famous children’s story titled, You are Special. The story is about Punchinello, the wooden Wemmick who believes that he isn’t good enough because of what others say about him. The Wemmicks spend their days putting dots on Wemmicks with chips or flaws and stars on Wemmicks with no flaws and special talents. Punchinello has far too many dots. One day he meets a Wemmick with no dots or stars, and he wants to find out why her dots and stars don’t stick like everyone else’s dots and stars do.
It is a beautiful story that reminds us that we are precious to God just the way we are. It is through spending daily time with him that we begin to see ourselves through his eyes. This is an important truth that we all need to know: God loves us even though we make mistakes and have flaws! This is life-changing truth that I wish my friend would have accepted.
If you think that you can’t possibly start over because you’ll always be labeled [fill in the blank], you are wrong. You are more than a label. You are more than the sum of your bad decisions. You are a child of God. You are loved in spite of your past and your mistakes. You are invited to live up to your potential. You can have a redo. All you have to do is ask.
Dedicated to my dear friend, Joaquim (1981-2016), who will always be labeled “friend” in my heart.