The following was originally delivered as part of the USY Talks series at International Convention 2017 in Chicago, IL.
By Hadar Pepperstone
The list goes on.
I am someone with a lot of labels and identities. Labels pervade our society and can be immense burdens, struggles that we have to cope with.
We don’t talk enough about labels and how they can affect us, often negatively. I know that I have struggled with all the labels I just stated, as well as a number of others. Being the child of a rabbi and a cantor, a lot of people expect me to be this ideal Jewish kid who knows every prayer in the siddur and story in the Torah, but, of course, I don’t.
As a queer person, meaning I’m not straight/heterosexual, it took me years to fully come out to my friends and family, and in some ways I’m still working on it.
I’m also a huge nerd—I love random, obscure facts, have a hardcore passion for fiction and play many little-known board games. Over time, more and more people have claimed the term “nerd” and I wear it as a badge of honor, as my father does and his mother before him.
All of these are labels and identities that I carry. Some I chose for myself, other I didn’t have a say in. But I had to wrestle and come to terms with all of them, what they mean to other people, what they mean to me, how I use them. Each of them has been a burden or a stresser at one time or another, causing denial, resentment, or frustration.
Sometimes these negative feelings are caused by societal influences, telling me I should be different or that something I have no control over is bad. In other cases, I only have my own experience to rely on which can be isolating and frustrating.
My journey of finding empowerment and freedom in this struggle has taken place over a number of years and in a number of stages. It is not something that I can tell you about that happened oh so many years ago, because it is still happening today and will continue for many years in the future. But I have made progress in helping myself to process and accept these identities.
In the summer of 2009, I went to two different camps and experienced an odd convergence of identity. First, I went to Camp Ramah in Canada for a month.
At Ramah, I was the only diabetic kid I knew of. In fact, often I felt singled out because of it. During meals I had to go to my mom, who was on staff, in order to calculate how much insulin I needed and give myself the injection.
My counselors knew very little about how to care for someone with diabetes and there were a few times when they made a wrong, even dangerous decision regarding it. But no one goes to Ramah to get diabetic care- you go for the Jewish experience, and I loved it.
Everyone was Jewish, and I didn’t find that abnormal then since I had always gone to day school, but now when I go to camp or USY it’s one of the things that makes it so special and unique.
Then, I went to a camp for type one diabetics, Camp Ho Mita Koda, meaning “welcome, my friend,” just outside of Cleveland. Here, I had the opposite experience that I had at Ramah.
Everyone was diabetic and no one got grossed out when I pricked my finger to test my blood sugar and everyone knew the struggle of being forced to eat food even when you didn’t want to when your blood sugar was low. Diabetes was the thing that brought us together here, and my Judaism set me apart.
I had my own bowl for my kosher food and got special marshmallows for campfires. And it wasn’t a Christian camp, but there was this vaguely Christian vibe that made me really uncomfortable. No one goes to Ho Mita Koda for the ruach.
In both of these very different places, the things that made me feel singled out in one, were the things that made me feel included in the other.
This contrast made me look at each of these experiences in context of each other and reconcile that while they don’t always have to be mutually exclusive, they often are and that’s okay. And, weirdly enough, I have met a number of wonderful people who are both Jewish and diabetic in USY.
The key in this journey to fully recognize and embrace myself has been to understand that any of the words that I or others use to describe me are only as powerful and only mean what I allow them to.
If it is something that other people have defined me as, I am under no obligation to then to fill that role or define myself in that way if I feel like it’s not accurate. However, if it is true, I can claim it and do so proudly, while still defining it for myself, in a way that feels true and empowering for me.
If the label is something that I have chosen for myself, no one else can tell me that it’s wrong, denying me the right to define who I am. I can reject or embrace any label that I want to, and no one else has the power to determine what that means. Of course, it’s harder than it sounds—it takes intention and a lot of self reflection—but it’s something I encourage everyone to try. It’s a form of self-care that is a bit harder than others, but is really rewarding.
Try to find a label, stereotype, identity that either has been put on you against your will, or one that you claim that others don’t know about or you fear won’t accept about you.
Explore how you feel about it, what do you want in this situation? Maybe it’s about accepting an identity that has been placed on you, but defining it for yourself and controlling how you let it impact you. Perhaps it’s coming to terms with something or having the courage to reject it.
Whatever you need to do, do it with intention, knowing that this could have a long-term, positive effect on you.
This kind of thought-process has had real positive effects on my life, in terms of how I view myself in relation to the world around me. But I have also been able to turn this onto other people and, as John Green, author of such books as “The Fault in Our Stars,” said in his novel, “Paper Towns,” it has helped to “imagine others complexly.”
I am a passionate person with a lot of strong feelings and opinions. This is another thing that I have accepted and embraced about myself, but it can cause me to butt heads with those who think differently that I do.
I can feel that there is little way for me to compromise with people. I am right and they are not and I need them to understand that. They’re not worth my time, except in showing them I am right. Or, at least, this was how I thought for awhile.
Eventually I decided that this way of thinking was making me miserable. I didn’t want to be making these grand, sweeping assumptions about groups or individuals who I didn’t know or hadn’t really talked to. So I decided to use the method that had helped me to understand and accept myself, but on other people.
Not that I was going to psychoanalyze every person on the street—that would, of course, be ridiculous and counterproductive. Rather, I was going to take the time and energy to imagine those who disagreed with me, on any topic, complexly, employing some radical empathy and understanding.
We have an innate desire to know everything about everyone we meet. In many ways, we are privileged with this ability through the use of social media—if I said that there haven’t been times when I looked through someone’s Facebook profile in an effort to try and figure something out about them, I would be lying.
But this isn’t necessarily an option in day-to-day life. So instead, we make assumptions, even subconsciously, about people based on what we do know about them. If your response to this statement is “What? No, I don’t do that,” then you’re not being totally honest with yourself or you are just a really thoughtful person.
But, assuming that this is the case for most people, we have to accept that we can never know everything about someone, their background, history, the context of their lives that makes them who they are.
This goes beyond opinions and ideas. Everyone is dealing with something in their lives, the cashier who isn’t really friendly one day, your classmate who says something rude in class; few people are mean or cruel for no reason.
By thinking about people as multifaceted, going through things that I’m not aware of, I can be more compassionate and understanding when interacting with them.
This summer at New England Encampment, there was a kid and right off the bat I could tell he was a jerk. He had a jerk face, jerk hair, a jerk shirt, and I just didn’t want to deal with him. For the first few days, I didn’t really pay attention to him—why engage with someone who was a jerk?—but then, during a conversation we were both a part of, he made a really kind, thoughtful comment towards me.
This shifted my view and opinion of him. I started giving him more of a chance and we had some other wonderful conversations. I’m glad that I gave him that chance, because this really solidified everything that I’m trying to say.
Instead of following my initial, incorrect impression, I gave someone a chance and let them show me who they really were.
Just as I do not let myself be defined by single words or labels, I give others the same courtesy. I don’t let one interaction, discussion, or opinion of someone define who they are in my own mind. It’s not about loving your neighbor as yourself, but understanding your neighbor as yourself.
Understanding that there is so much more to them that what you see on the surface. Even if it’s your best friend, you might not know about everything that they are going through. To allow yourself to be kind to somebody and use this mentality to counteract the far too common stereotyping and conclusion-jumping that we are so used to is invaluable and makes the world a kinder place.
USY is a place that we strive to make accepting and comfortable for people. This idea and practice can help further that goal. Even here, in a place already so wonderful and that we love, there is room for improvement and we can derive it from this overall idea.
Many, if not all of us, have been in the situation where we’re at a convention and see someone we really want to talk to but found ourselves thinking, “Ugh, that person is out of my friend-league” and then not gone up to them!
These barriers that divide us and that make you distance yourself from someone are based on initial assumptions and judgement. I encourage you to go up to someone who you think is it of your “friend-league,” or is sitting alone and engage with them.
Forget the “What region are you from? What grade are you in?” that we call asked and answered a million time. Ask “What could you spend hours doing?” Jump right to that level of complexity, let them show you who they are.
Imagine a world where we each employ both sides of this way of thinking. On one hand, we are empowered to take control and authority over how we define ourselves, regardless of what others have to say about it.
On the other hand, we are allowing other people to do the same by not actively categorizing them and putting them into boxes in our own minds. I am not advocating for the removal of all defining labels and identities for people.
Rather, I am advocating for the empowerment and freedom of individuals to define themselves and for the compassion and empathy of everyone around them to allow them to do that.
Even beyond that, I am advocating to let your identity grow and mature as you do, and to accept that others are speaking their own truth when their labels change.
We live in a ridiculous world. Kindness and understanding towards ourselves and others is never easy, but it’s crucial on the path to breaking down these constructed barriers between people and within ourselves.
Freedom to define who you are is fundamental. By giving yourself the permission to do that and allowing other to do the same, you make the world a more accepting, open place for yourself and those around you. How can you view others and yourself more complexly?
Before I said that I’m Jewish. I’m diabetic. I’m short. I’m a rabbi’s kid. I’m a nerd. I also said I’m queer.
When I say that, many people will think that I’m gay or bisexual, but I’m not either of those things. It’s a lot more complex than that. I encourage you to look inside yourself and ask what are the labels you have that are maybe more complex.
So I want you to ask yourself…Who are you?