Labels And Averages

Man is the only critter who feels the need to label things as flowers or weeds.

What are you?

Does that question even make sense?

This weekend I discussed cycling with a relatively new acquaintance. He likes to ride, and he was really curious about my hand cycle. When he suggested that we ride together I chuckled. I don’t ride fast enough to give most cyclists much exercise.

So he asked, “About how fast do you ride?”

“Between nine and ten miles per hour.”


I thought about this later and wondered whether I described my riding accurately. So this morning I tried an experiment. I did 24.4 miles in 2 hours 39 minutes—9.2 mph, just as I claimed.

However, I purposely chose the route so the first half took me toward the foothills, predominately uphill, and 12.2 miles took 1:33—7.9 mph. Coming back, the same distance required only 1:06—11.1 mph.

So which is it? Am I a 9 mph rider, an 8 mph rider, or an 11 mph rider?

Actually, I looked frequently at the speedometer and never saw any of those precise numbers. None of those labels described my riding during parts of the course.

Labels are often averages.

My cycling is an obvious example because speed is easily quantified. But think about the other labels we stick on our foreheads—aren’t they usually some conglomeration of many varying behaviors?

You’re a Democrat? So now I know your position on every political issue, right? I attend a mega-church—we all know what THOSE folks are like!

I did a little estimating. My cycle route was probably six miles of real hills (up and down), which leaves about 12.4 miles of flats. Uphill is really hard for me, maybe 5 mph, so that’s 72 minutes. I ride about 12 mph on flat ground, so that’s 62 minutes. That leaves 25 minutes going downhill at 14.4 mph.

That means I spent about two-thirds of the course riding 12 mph or faster. So if my friend doesn’t mind waiting for me on the hills, we can actually ride together most of the time at a decent speed. But I dismissed myself as a “9 mph rider” who wouldn’t be good cycling company.

How often do we discount someone because of a label that doesn’t really describe the individual? How often are we putting someone in a bucket because of a single trait or behavior?

Are all “alcoholics” alike? No, but that label carries a stigma and a list of behaviors for many of us. How about “disabled” or “gifted” or “average”? Those buckets contain a lot of variety and individual differences, and a lot of people who have little in common other than the label itself.

Saturday evening a complete stranger told me I shouldn’t be allowed to sit near him at a baseball game because I wore a New York Yankees cap. I THINK he was joking, but it’s a good reminder to be aware of the labels I attach to myself and others.

I’d never thought about labels as averages, but many times that’s exactly what they are. “9 mph” doesn’t accurately describe my cycling, just as most labels don’t the folks to which they’re attached. I want to spend some time this week looking at the dangers of over-reliance on labels and categories.

For now, this question:

What are some labels you stick on yourself or others? How are they misleading averages?

Don’t rely too much on labels, for too often they are fables. Charles H. Spurgeon

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Copyright 2010 by Rich Dixon, All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.
Rich is an author and speaker. He is the author of:
Relentless Grace: God’s Invitation To Give Hope Another Chance
. Visit his web site

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