Friday, November 1, 2013

What's in a Name?

When I was a boy I didn't like my name.  I don't know why, but I didn't.  I preferred my middle name.

In fact, I remember being a child and making friends with a neighboring family, I asked them to call me by my middle name.  I was sad when that didn't take.

I've since changed.  I heard once that every person's favorite word is their own name.  This is why people who want to make you feel good use it often in a conversation when they meet you.  I have no idea how scientifically accurate this is, but it makes sense to me.  There is that tiny thrill that goes through me when I see a character on TV or in a movie with my name.  It feels like in some strange, miniscule way the name connects us.

It is amazing how important our names are to us, and yet most of the time we don't choose them.  Sure there are exceptions.  CS Lewis was, I believe, 3-years-old when he declared to his entire family that we would no longer answer to his first name: Clive.  From that point on, he would answer only "Jacksie" or "Jack."  And for the rest of his 64 years on earth, that is what his friends and family called him.  It was, to say the least, a precoscious action.  But it asserted his independence.  He would be the master of his own destiny.

But Jack's case is rare.  The rest of us are given a name.  And whether we like it or not, we stick with it for the entire crazy trip we call life.  I think one of the reasons why we keep it, even if we don't like it, is because of who gave us our name.

The doctor doesn't name us, the state doesn't name us, the Church doesn't name us.

Our parents name us.

In the Bible, naming something is a sign of your power and authority over something.  God names Adam.  Adam names the beasts.  Adam recognizes the Woman, but he does not name her (until after the Fall, which is an effect of Original Sin).  And re-naming shows a special paternal relationship, as when God renamed Abram to Abraham, Moses renamed Hoshea to Joshua, or Jesus renames Simon to Peter.

Our parents get to choose our name because they are the ones who have true power and authority over us in our young lives.  They are the ones who shape us.  They care for our bodies.  They build up our minds.  They establish the contours of our souls.  We are invested in them for everything.  Of course they should name us.  They made us, not just in conception, but they made much of who we are today.

I think that's why some nicknames stick and some don't.  I'm not talking about the mean ones that people throw at you to bully and taunt.  I think we accept those names as signs of acceptance and affection, even if those names come from strange places.  I often write about my good friend, the Doctor.  Whenever I greet him, I always say, "Doctor..." instead of his name.  I wish it was for a reason that makes sense, like the fact that he has a PhD in Biblical Studies.  Instead it was because we both liked the movie Spies Like Us and quoted the "Doctor" scene all the time.  But that was 20 years ago that this started.  And we still do it.  I think its because any real friendship forged has its own little language that puts us in an inner circle.  The nicknames remind us that we made it into the club, and my name means something.  I mean, hey, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

I also think that's where our little endearments in marriage come from.  We call each other, "Dear," or "Honey" or "Baby" or "Schmmoopie" or whatever.  Everyone else calls us by our own names (or worse) in the outside world.  But only that one other person, that person with whom we are most vulnerable, can look at the worst part of us and still call us by a name of affection.

Although I do have to say this: as I mentioned earlier, I used dislike my first name.  But I don't anymore.  It might be my favorite sound now.  And it is that for no other reason than that I love hearing it said by my wife.  The first time she ever said "I love you" and called me by name is a moment I will never forget.  It was as if someone said my name for the very first time.  In it, she encapuslated the whole totality of who I was and yet she still saw something loveable there.  No, not just something.  She loved it all.  Me.

And my wife took my name as her own.  I remember going with her to the social security office where she had to make it all legal.  It struck me what a huge deal this was: taking on your husband's name.  Her wanting it made it feel like it had a value that I never thought it had.  The name is even more special to me because it is now her name too.

And then on Monday, my sister gave birth to her first son.  And his parents gave him my middle name as his first name.  And I discovered that he was named after me.

That was a singular moment, to realize that my name had been given to another, that this child would be indelibly marked with a part of me.  In the moment I saw the text message with his name, two things occurred to me:

The first was that there is a kind of immortality that comes with having someone named after you.  You leave a mark on this world that will exist after you.

The second was that I now had tangible evidence of my sister and her husband's love.  I'm often a goofball and can often be annoying and rather flakey, especially to my family.  I never doubted that they loved me, but to choose something so important as their son's name...

And I began to cry.

Our names matter.  It is the symbol of who we are and the sum of our experiences.  Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman often makes the point that our names have power.  Our names our magic.  And they are.  When we recall our absent friends and family and speak their names, a part of them is conjured.  they are present with us.  We have their names and we know them.

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