A few weeks ago, I picked up a paper at a hotel on my way back from a backpacking trip near Seattle. An article title caught my eye, which read “Phyllis Schafly, a conservative activist, has died at the age of 92. I must admit that I had never heard (or recalled hearing) of her before, and had no idea what she stood for.
But what struck me most in the headline was the word “conservative.” Beyond being a “conservative activist,” Mrs. Schafly apparently was a wife, mother of six, a friend, an author, and ultimately, a human being who lived for over nine decades. Yet despite all of this, it was the conservative label that ultimately ended up on her deceased headline.
I mention this because it sure seems that we are quick to seek out labels for people, especially public figures. As the elections approach, I find it quite striking just how steadfastly the media and other public figures seem to pigeon hole individuals into categories of “liberal” and “conservative.” By definition, a conservative is “a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.” In contrast, a liberal is a person who is “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values” and “believes that government should be active in supporting social and political change.”
There is little doubt that human beings support and display behaviors that could be characterized by either definition. But when we seek to compartmentalize people in this way, it defies the reality even for the most flexible or inflexible of us. It suggests all our beliefs can be characterized in one description, and that we are incapable of growth of any kind. These labels have a way of shutting down discussions and getting to know people for who they really are, where they have been, and who they strive to be. They also can define our perception of ourselves (in somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy) and limit our ability to change and remain steadfast as needed. Unknowingly, we find ourselves aligning with how we see ourselves even if this isn’t necessarily the best and most truthful route.
When we think about it, the purpose in life is not to be a liberal, conservative, or any other group or categorization, including Catholic. We should all be seeking out the most truthful, effective, charitable pathway we can find. If this puts us in a “liberal” land or a “conservative” domain, then so be it. There is no virtue in holding fast to traditional values or embracing new change unless either is framed by a truthful and noble purpose. No one has a complete grasp of the truth, or how to best take care of each other or ourselves. But often it emerges rather clear when a particular action has more to do with maintaining an image or supporting a group (e.g., political party) than necessarily seeking out the most effective, compassionate response possible.
For those who read my articles, you probably have developed your own ideas about how you would categorize me. Understandably, many might consider some of my ideas as “conservative”, especially with regard to topics such as youth/technology and family. But if you continue reading what I write in various forums and publications (and I appreciate all that do), I think that you may find that many of my current views sound more “liberal”, including in areas of health, environment, and humanity. I don’t ultimately know where truth lies. But I do have a strong desire to go in search of it at whatever costs (and I appreciate those who join me). Whether that leads me to be categorized a liberal or conservative or whatever term may be assigned, it matters very little except for the fact that I hope you won’t simply shut me down based on a categorization. We all owe it to one another to get to know each other better, whether from close or afar, before we make further judgments. For when I die, hopefully my headline will read, “Jim Schroeder, husband, father, and truth-seeking activist” or something of the kind.