I'll never forget one of the first times I saw my father cry. Besides the fact that it wasn't often I saw my dad in such a vulnerable state, what makes this memory stick is that I know his tears were my fault.
I was in the eighth grade, at the peak of my teenage melodrama, and while we actually still had a great relationship throughout my adolescence, I had my bad days — and on this day in particular I was completely horrible to him.
I do not remember exactly how it started, but the feeling I got when he turned to me — with pain filling up and flooding over his eyes — still makes my heart ache. I can't even recall our argument, but I'll never forget hearing him say, "I just don't understand what I did wrong."
Looking back, it's hard to say how I felt as I walked away, but I do know that from then on, the idea I had of my dad was never the same. I had been exposed to something that happens to us all continuously throughout our lives and with numerous people; I had realized for the first time that my charming, funny, intelligent, strong father was in all reality only human.
From the very beginning of the development of our world perception, we start placing labels on everything. Of course, that is only natural because all things have their categories and names, and to be able to understand the concept of something, it helps to know what to call it. As we grow older we begin to gain knowledge and an awareness of the people around us, and before we know it — they also have their own labels. Ms. Wilson is a teacher; Dr. Korph is a dentist; Jen and Julie are your sisters; Hillary is your best friend; that man walking past is a stranger.
We do this both consciously and not, and most often with good reason. People are given labels for either what they do or who they are, especially in correlation to our relationship with them. While people also almost always have several labels and different labels from different people, it seems as though one label always stands above the rest. It is this label that can end up challenging their identity, our relationship and our expectations.
My father had always been just that to me. While I was aware that he was also a husband to my mom, an uncle to my cousins, a brother to my uncles, a producer and a (self-proclaimed) comedian, he was above all else my father. There is a preconceived notion of what a father does even though we all have different experiences and perspectives on what a father's role is.
Therefore we expect our own dads to do and act along the same lines. So when my dad broke down in front of me, showing me a weak side — it shook my reality.
Maybe it was because I was young and hadn't yet been able to relate to my parents on a level aside from as their daughter, but this moment brought to my attention the fact that my dad was only human. He made mistakes, he could feel powerless and he could get caught up in emotions. I had been so fixed on his label as my father that I couldn't quite see all the different levels of his identity.
I find myself holding people to their labels all the time, and it is something on which I am trying to loosen up. While stereotypes are one thing, our labels for people involved in our personal lives are quite another, and while they do help to define our relationships, they can also get in the way of any further development. These labels, if held too tightly, can act as restrictions, can block us from knowing a person in his or her entirety, and can lead us to disappointment from our expectations. Wherever we place labels, we must not forget to see the people behind them.
We must remember that people, family, friends, significant others, colleagues, professionals and strangers have lives and identities that are separate from our relationship with them. Remember, no matter who people are to you, they are who they are and above everything else they are only human.
Kelly Hagenah is a senior speech communications major. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian.