Why Do We Put People into Categories?
From the moment we are born, we are put into categories. Before gender reveal parties became a fad, someone at your birth would have announced, “It’s a boy!” Or “It’s a girl!” Later we found ourselves in other categories. We were put into Mrs. Toth’s first grade… we rode bus 13… we were in the Blue Bird reading group. As time went on, perhaps someone might have described us as a “tom boy,” a “brain,” a “jock,” a “nerd,” or even a “Cat’lick.”
We were not only put into categories by other people, we put other people into categories as well. We learned words like “old fogy,” “city slicker”, “jerk,” “bully,” and even ethnic or racial slurs. The question arises: Why do we put people into categories? One reason is relatively simple: Human beings are so diverse, so complex, so unpredictable, they can be terrifying. We classify them in order to make them less bewildering or less scary. By categorizing people, we make them more manageable, more controllable. There is a down side (and it’s a BIG one) to doing this. Every time we put people into categories, we put artificial limits on their individuality and uniqueness. Thus we run the risk of missing the truth of who they really are.
Have you ever heard someone say (or have you ever said) something like this?
“She’s a girl, she can’t throw a baseball.”
“He’s a Democrat. You know what that means!”
“He’s a man—what did you expect?”
“She’s a nun; she’s no fun.”
If we look at Jesus in the Gospels, we see that people tried to put him into categories too. When Philip excitedly tells Nathaniel about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:45-46) … When the sinful woman anoints Jesus in the house of the Pharisee, the Pharisee thinks, “If Jesus were a prophet, he would know what sort of woman this is.” (Lk. 7:39) … Jesus’ enemies dismissed him as a “glutton” because he enjoyed food and drink… Even Jesus’ apostles tried to put Jesus into his proper place. When Jesus tells them he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die, Peter says with gusto, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” (Mt. 16:21-22).
There is evidence in the Gospel that even Jesus struggled with putting other people into categories. When the Syro-Phoenician woman begs him to cure her daughter, Jesus, at first, refuses to do so because she is not of the house of Israel. But her spunky response to his refusal ends up altering not only his perception of her, but also his perception of himself and his entire mission! Most of the time in the Gospel, however, Jesus is shown refusing to put people into categories. He publicly praised the Roman centurion for his great compassion towards his servant and for his strong faith. He saw children not as non-entities, but as precious human beings who could teach adults a lesson or two about humility, innocence, and trust. Jesus refused to see women as second-class citizens. Rather he treated them with respect, offering them genuine friendship. Consequently, many women became Jesus’ closest and most loyal followers. Even on the cross, Jesus saw the thief being crucified next to him as “good” and gave him a promissory ticket for heaven.
What are some of the factors that prevent us from relating to individuals as individuals? The first two factors are time and energy. It takes time to get to know people. It takes energy too. It’s much simpler and quicker just to assume we know who people are—even without meeting them on a level where self-revelation has time to take place! Another factor that interferes with getting to know individuals as individuals is this: people are constantly changing. What was true about someone a year or ten years ago may not be true today. But it’s easier to keep people frozen in the past than to discover how they have changed and grown.
As Christians, we believe God knows us as individuals, as unique human beings, as one-of-a-kind-ers. If we are made in God’s image, then aren’t we also called to relate to others as individuals—as best we can? In fact, learning to relate to others as individuals has a name: it’s called love.
+ Name some of the categories you put people into… like old/young… inexperienced/wise… a certain racial, ethnic, or religious group… a certain occupation
+ Are there individuals in your life right now whom you have put into categories? Who are they? Why have you done this?
+ Have you ever experienced someone putting YOU into a category? How did that make you feel?
Here’s an old hymn written from the 19th Century: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” The original version was written by Frederick W. Faber. It is sung here by Ed Bolduc. God doesn’t put people into categories because of the breadth of God’s point of view and the wideness of God’s love and mercy…
I invite you to write a comment below to anything in this blog today.
I love Sunflower Seeds. Your message was late this morning and it started my whole week off the right foot. Again a lesson in patience.
Dear Alice, Yes, for some reason, my blog was late today. I’m looking into that. But thank you for your kind words! Gratefully, Sr. Melannie
Thank you Sister Melannie. I love this piece and the message it sends. LOVE. It is a great reminder. And so true too.
Thankyou for the beautiful thought filled message. You gave me much to think and pray about.
Good evening, Sr. Melannie…
Good evening, all…
I once heard a priest say, “Labels are for jars.” I like that. Still, has that stopped me from “labeling” people? Putting them into categories? I like what you say about how we classify people to make them less bewildering and scary. I never thought of it like that but it’s true.
As everyone knows, we are living through a politically fraught time in our country. To stay sane during this time, I kept going onto YouTube to listen to segments from certain news programs, to listen to the opening monologues of late-night TV hosts. Sure enough, YouTube — via the algorithm — “categorized” me as a certain type, sending me snippets of programs that appealed to my echo chamber of ideas. In turn, I started to think about people who belonged to another echo chamber in a disparaging way. Not good! You’re right — Jesus wouldn’t do that. In the words of Pope Francis, that’s not God’s style.
Years ago, I “assumed ” a particular mom was “snooty” and unapproachable because she came from old money. Got to know her as she was just getting her real estate license and we contracted with her to sell our first house. The experience was so good our 2 neighbors used her to sell their homes! Years later assumed another mom I volunteered with wasn’t very nice. Turned out she was shy and and an introvert. Knew she was looking for a house and found one in our neighborhood for sale. Mentioned it to her and while not the house for her, she sent the most thoughtful heartfelt thank you! Lastly, recently assumed the 90 year old priest who was hearing my confession must be hard of hearing so I spoke VERY LOUDLY until he told me to lower my voice!
Sr. Melanie, I found your reflection very insightful, as usual!
Categories and labels intend to point out the differences in people, but unfortunately they fail to recognize the uniqueness of individuals. Making generalizations about others is disrespectful. I’m appreciative of how you pointed out how Jesus refused to do this. Thank you!
Fr. John Fuchs, S.J.
It was delightful to meet and chat with you yesterday, Thank you for this reflection and for encouraging us to see the divine essence in everyone. Since my husband’s death two and a half months ago, I have been fortunate to encounter kindness and compassion in so many unexpected ways. Perhaps I am more open to recognizing it because in my vulnerability, I see the vulnerability of others. I feel more porous, more transparent, which somehow allows in the light of others.
Linda, It was wonderful meeting you yesterday here in Kentucky. I know we are kindred spirits with our years of teaching English and our great love for reading and writing. I will continue to hold you in prayer as you mourn the loss of your dear husband, Tom… I’m so happy you found my blog. Thanks again for writing! Melannie
Dear Sr. Melanie: Your comments about labeling other people brought me back to my freshman year of college in Boston. Three of us had to do a project on “labeling people.” We worked the entire semester and we got an A+ on the report. We wrote it based on people who were homeless, people who were alcoholics, etc., etc. The one word that kept recurring in all of this was the “loneliness.” People who had lost jobs, spouses, children were all so hopeless. It was a true lesson in labeling people who we don’t know anything about. It’s just part of the complex human condition, but we should learn from this mistake.
Dear Sister: I always enjoy reading your blog and listening to the perfectly picked music! I put people in to categories ie: Trumpster’s — I grew up in a very Catholic family and we always talked about people behind their back and sometimes right in front of them. 🙁 I grew up name calling and categorizing: burnouts, sleazes, preppy, gay, etc. However, I never heard the word Cat’lick – what is that? hahahahaha?!?!?! I just thought everyone did this because everyone in my circle and family did this. As I got older and was raising six children I began to realize that “everybody” didn’t talk about people, mostly just me :-0 I have become much better than I was then but still find myself (or my kids will correct me) putting people in to categories. I also realized that God gave me these six children, not so I could teach them about the world, but so they could teach me. And have they ever – I discovered a couple of years ago that my youngest is gay! Who would have thunk it??? This has also opened up a whole new chapter, learning that she was born this way and all LGBTQ are born this way – I am still learning and hope that I always will – I tell my kids, when I die, you will know that I finally became the person God created me to be!
God love you! I have two gay children, and, yes, they were made that way! Like Joseph and his dream coat, our God is a God of many colors!
Thank you John! 😊
Dear Sr. Melannie,
What food for thought. My husband, Jack, had some interesting observations. He reminded me that some of the nicest people we know, we met in prison. Definitely, some of the most interesting people I associate with are inmates I correspond with. The public catagorizes them as criminals but they are really just incarcerated citizens.
Have a blessed day.
Sr Melannie and everyone, hello!
A powerful reflection, one that has me probing my inner “inventory-taking” mechanism — taking other folks’ inventory, that is! — dismissing them with a few pert words, etc.
“There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” is my favourite hymn, in the Calvin Hampton arrangement, as performed by Ana Hernandez and the late D. G. Bly, alias The Miserable Offenders.
Much to consider here. Thank you!
Thank you for the wonderful reminder to avoid putting others in categories. We all change and must give others the same privilege of change. Your messages are so down to earth. May God continue the beautiful ministry He has been working through you. ❤️🙏
What a powerful and beautiful message topped off by just as powerful and beautiful song! May we all spend this day forward being the mercy we desire! Thank you Sister for reminding us how and why to extend mercy to others.