Mount Guyot in the remote Pemigewasset Wilderness of the White Mountains of New Hampshire has a lot going for it—it is arguably one of the best views in the Whites. Yet many hikers fail to take in its beauty. Why? In part, because it is remote, few make the hike. But, because of a label, even those who pass over the summit may not pause.
The summit of Mt. Guyot is well over 4000 feet; it is an official mountain in the US Geological Survey. But, because of a man-made, arbitrary rule, the Appalachian Mountain Club does not include Mt. Guyot on its list of White Mountain peaks above 4000 feet. They recognize forty-eight other mountains on their list. As peak bagging has become a favorite past time of hikers, mountains that do not make the AMC’s “official” list are often ignored by hikers striving to summit the “48.”
The first time we saw Guyot we were on the way to somewhere else—admittedly, we were striving to complete the “48.” None of our hiking guidebooks even hinted at the beauty we would encounter as we emerged from the scrub on the Twinway Trail onto the expansive approach to the summit of Guyot. Since that hike in 2006 we have returned three times, most recently last week. Guyot is on our short list of favorite views in the Whites.
How easily we classify (and allow others to classify for us) what we like or we don’t like. Consider these examples:
- Sitting in a meeting, we listen to only a few people. We have already classified others as not worth listening to.
- We allow our view of reality to be shaped by experts. We fail to do our own due diligence, and we fail to allow ourselves to explore issues with an open mind. “Everyone knows,” for example, that the Fed should be manipulating the money supply and controlling interest rates. “Everyone knows” we should have a flu shot in the fall. “Everyone knows” we need to drink milk to have healthy bones.
- We meet someone for the first time and make an instant judgment. We quickly decide we like this person and we don’t like that person. We mentally rehearse the reasons for our decisions, precluding a change of heart.
- We filter new experiences through our memory. When something changes or doesn’t meet our expectations, we place a negative label on it.
- We label ourselves—positively or negatively—depending upon our mood. We fail to recognize that these mentally generated labels hinder us from being fully responsive to the moment.
All of these examples are perfectly common; it would be hard to go through a single day without experiencing one or more of these mental scenarios. Yet, as we label, we limit our experience of reality.
Nanette Sawyer is the pastor of Grace Commons in Chicago. She had this to say about labeling (her words are adapted by the Arbinger Institute):
There is a beauty in paradox when it comes to talking about things of ultimate concern. Paradox works against our tendency to stay superficial… or to rest on easy answers or categorical thinking. It breaks apart our categories by showing the inadequacy of them and by pointing to a reality larger than us… [Paradox] takes us somewhere we wouldn’t be capable of going if we thought we had everything all wrapped up, if we thought we had attained full comprehension. The commitment to embracing the paradox and resisting the impulse to categorize people (ourselves included) is one of the ways to attain wisdom.
As Sawyer points out, the act of labeling blocks wisdom. We can begin to drop labeling by recognizing that we do have the power of choice. However, we cannot exercise our power of choice to control the thoughts we think. That is impossible. To try to control our thinking is a counterproductive exercise that generates immense frustration and certain failure.
Instead, we can practice something simpler. We can be aware of our thinking and then depersonalize it. As you read this, you may be thinking, Of course, I am already aware of my thinking. Often, I’m bothered by it.
To be fully aware of our thinking means we understand our thinking has no power over us. A thought is not fact just because we thought it. A thought arises, but we can choose to let it pass back into the nothingness from which it came. A thought gains power over us only when we resist it or ruminate over it.
Of course, it seems otherwise. We have an angry thought about someone, and we literally feel the tension in our body. Because we feel the emotion and the tension, we believe that the thought that accompanies the feeling must be accurate—we conclude the other person made us angry.
But, we have confused cause and effect. Via thought, we created our angry feelings. Our thinking is the cause of our feeling; the other person or event we blame is not the cause of our feeling.
Our colleagues, our neighbors, our students, and our loved ones are much more than the labels we give them. As we drop our labels, we find our thinking becomes wiser and more inspired. As we drop our labels, everyday experiences are transformed; we are surprised and delighted by the Mt. Guyots in our lives.