Mike Garry (2015). “The Importance of Names and Calling People by Names.” CYS.
What’s in a name? Why does it matter? If I were called something completely different would I still be writing here today? It seems calling someone by their rightful name and telling the truth about them is vitally important, but what are our true names and how do we discover them? Throughout time and across all cultures, the notion of name as it pertains to identity has long carried with it heavy weight, a weight for some which propels them forward and gives them momentum toward greatness in their given milieu. For others, the name is a malaise and the weight it imposes stymies growth and stifles the spirit. In what ways are we to stand upon our names? How do we crawl out from beneath them?
A number of stories concerning names come from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. In a few instances, God changes some peoples’ names (Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah) as a sort of pronouncement of a change in their lives. In another story, a tired, bitter refugee woman named Naomi desires to change her name to better reflect a new, sad stage in her life. A man named Jabez bears a name reflective of the pain endured by his mother, a name which may have propelled him in adulthood to avoid any actions that might bring pain to others. Some of us today may hear names from our childhood, positive or negative, affecting our lives in one way or another. A rising star among the first century Pharisees experienced a dramatic conversion that changed his name from Saul to Paul—as he moved primarily from Jewish to Gentile cultures. It may be that the idea of one and only one true, rightful name is a bit narrow and restrictive.
Changing one’s name in crossing cultures may be helpful to some. When speaking with some students on a seminary campus, there were those who found using this very tactic helpful based on the environment and country in which they found themselves. For some, their national names brought with them cultural significance and gave them recognition within circles they were trying to integrate. Others carried names intended to bless them and give them a title and explanation of their character and background to whomever they met. After seeing neighbors grow into names which carried with them an element of curse, a west-African student made it a point to give his new born son a name which showed the young boy honor and respect. Some Native American customs allow for various names given throughout certain seasons of one’s life. Imagine the hope a practice like this could bring the struggling teens who find themselves with the name: “paranoid,” “fag,” or “whore.”
Who are the nameless “others” in our society? It is far easier to dehumanize and commit the moral sin of apathy toward one who has no title in the eyes of the beholder. When walking into a public place and seeing any variety of social outcasts; the homeless, the mentally ill, the working boy or girl, the hustler or the struggling youth, is it easier or harder to ignore such a setting when a first name is involved?
In the Gospel stories, Jesus brought healing and communal restoration to cripples and crazies, those living on the margins of society. Within his own circle of friends, his disciples, he brought those with hostile opinions and lifestyles into a community calling one another by favorite names. A hated and embarrassed tax-collector, of extremely short stature, climbed up a tree in order to see the passing rabbi, and heard himself called by name: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay in your house today.” Similarly today, some students, and some despised by society, have “come to life” when they heard their own names spoken correctly with respect. Healing and growth-producing relationships can begin when the use of a name conveys genuine dignity.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- To what extent, do you think, a person’s name is an essential aspect in their sense of individual identity?
- What does your birth name mean to you? Why? What other names do you carry around? If they are freeing, how can you use them to encourage others? If they are heavy, what will it look like to crawl out from beneath that/those weight(s)?
- Why did people in the different stories change their names? Did you see any patterns?
- Is it appropriate to change our names? In what ways? For what reasons?
- Who are the nameless “others” in your life? How can you go about being present in their lives? What would it look like to be “in their presence”?
- How do we go about naming others? Do these names bring healing or harm? What does this reveal about who we are?
- It is beneficial to study the naming of children across cultures perhaps starting with a Wikipedia article: “Naming Ceremony”.
- Native Americans would take time to watch their babies before giving them names—and a person might receive new names at further significant junctures of their lives. You might check out this article from Psychology Today: “Names and Identity: The Native American Naming Tradition.”
- It might be important to study or consider the most negative and vulgar names we can throw at a person, which undermine his/her dignity and personhood.
- Like many important human traditions, naming of children can become trivialized—a matter of checking out the most popular boy and girl names on the Internet.
Want to Know More? Take a look at these further resources on names:
Edward Deluzain, “Names and Personal Identity,” Behindthename.com. – Discusses the cultural, sacramental and secular significance of names. “The sense of personal identity and uniqueness a name give us…is important to us as individuals and to our society as a whole.”
Valerie Strauss (2014, Sept. 19), “The Importance of a Name,” Washington Post. – Learning the names and pronunciation of those names is more important that students themselves will often admit.
Mike Garry, Dan Xinzhe Chen, and Dean Borgman, Fall 2015
© 2019 CYS