The perils of 'pigeonholing'

People who raise pigeons often house them in box perches, which basically consist of a number of small recesses or holes about 12 inches square stacked on top of each other. The pigeons roost together in their little compartments, often returning to the same one each night.

This arrangement of boxes was so functional and efficient that soon it was used to sort out other items, like papers. People began labeling the boxes, so that when item A came in, it went into the hole labeled A. Or if a letter to Utah arrived, it was sorted into the box titled "Utah." They called that process of sorting "pigeonholing" for obvious reasons.Soon that expression, "to pigeonhole," became part of our everyday speech. It was a tidy way to explain the process by which we make quick judgments on the things we encounter. We make those snap judgments and categorize things - even people - all of the time. Now we have a descriptive phrase for it.

The problem is, once an item or a person is pigeonholed, we're in danger of leaving them there, uninspected and possibly unused. And we assess them by the mental labels of the pigeonhole into which we placed them.

Specifically, we assume that having once labeled that person as a Mormon, for example, or a Catholic, or a Jew or a Muslim, we then assume that we know all we need to know about them. That's a foolish way to build friendships, and it ignores much of the wealth of experience that they and their cultures have accumulated throughout their lives. We have so much invested in the success of our common humanity that we cannot afford to put people into convenient pigeonholes of preconceptions.

More than that, however, is the loss that comes from not getting to know people for who they really are. It can even become dangerous. The world is currently witness to heart-wrenching examples of ethnic conflicts in which groups - and even whole populations - are in mortal peril because others cannot see beyond their labels.

The Lord has not taken that approach. After Christ's death, the apostle Peter was taught the lesson of tolerance in a dramatic incident recorded in the 10th chapter of Acts. Cornelius, an Italian centurion, saw an angel in a vision and was directed to seek out Peter as a reward for his faith. Confronting Cornelius, Peter explained that it was "an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean." (Acts 10:28.) And as Cornelius explained his vision, Peter "opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." (Acts 10: 34-35.)

Six hundred years before that, the prophet Nephi preached that regarding the children of men, the Lord "inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile." (2 Ne. 26:33.)

It's clear that what counts with the Lord is not gender, nor race, nor nationality, nor education, nor many of the other labels by which we pigeonhole people. The things that do matter are faithfulness, charity, love, compassion, patience, hope, obedience, virtue - all attributes that defy assignment to any one group of people. It's the height of arrogance to assume that we can judge people on those important characteristics by simply categorizing them by the convenient ethnic, religious, national or other labels we are too prone to use.

As for pigeonholing itself, a third-generation breeder of pigeons commented, "It's like everything else: the more knowledge you get, the more interesting it is." There are, to be explicit, 300 species of pigeons living in virtually every part of the world. They've been domesticated since 3100 B.C., and some, like the homing pigeon, have such sophisticated senses that we can only marvel at their abilities. Some racing pigeons sell for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars. The smaller members of the pigeon family are called doves - the symbol of peace.

We should be careful in our rush to judge and categorize people and things. Placing people into tidy little categories may indeed be efficient, but it's not wise nor even fair. It's also not what we expect when our own day of judgment comes. The Lord said it clearly: "Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matt. 7:1-2.)

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed