Let’s talk about names.
In context, over the last few months I’ve been working a lot on identity, in the last week or so I’ve been reading Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller–a book I highly recommend–and at small group the other night, the topic was names. Primarily out of these three things and a TED talk mention below, I have pinned down the following thoughts.
Why we name things
One of the first questions asked in group was why we name things. I immediately thought of it in terms of writing, and came up with a surprisingly long list of how I name characters. I can come up with six that I know I’ve for sure used, about eighteen total. Originally, I had them all listed in this post, but on rereading I’ve realized that might not really be what the question was about.
See, the reason we name things, ultimately, is to know them. Anyone who has written a story in which they’re trying to keep a character’s identity a secret will recognize this frustration. Even if you can’t call them Steve you end up picking some way to describe them. The man, the man with the hat, the tall man, the lady, the pirate, the cripple, the phoenix. If you want your readers to know who or what you’re talking about, a name is the quickest way. This idea (and the discussion at group leading up to it) has revealed to me something crucial about how I’ve been viewing myself.
Another question asked in small group was what we would call ourselves if we could choose a different name. It was not a new idea for some of us, but something I’d never seriously considered. I’ve had many labels to describe myself (INFJ, introvert, short, smart, nerdy, etc), but nothing like a new name. I thought about it, and the thing that came to mind was World Bringer. If we’re being honest, I’ve had times where I’ve thought of World Destroyer as an appropriate title for myself too, not because I want to do something devious (or because Abby Morrison, World Destroyer sounds kind of awesome, which it does), but because when I create a world for a story, I also have to in some ways destroy it. To create a war for the events of Machine to take place in, I also have to create families to provide soldiers for it, deaths for those soldiers, grief for their families, shattered lives. There are thousands kept under oppression for over a century for Equilibrium to happen. It’s a sobering responsibility, also one too large to unpack in this post. What I wanted to point out, besides the fact that I’m seeing a shift in how I view myself (from Destroyer to Bringer), which is curious, is the fact that the way I chose to name myself sprang almost entirely from what I do. Other members of our group picked names relating to their history, names that reflect their identity or how they feel they are perceived by others, names they liked or names that took them away from something they didn’t like about the name they have now. So why was I approaching it so differently? Let’s take a closer look.
How we name things
Did you ever notice that names almost always come first? Before you invent something, you name it, most people have baby names picked out before their child is born, and before you start writing about a character, you usually know their name (Sometimes you don’t get it right and you have to change it later, but that’s another issue entirely). This reveals something, an intent behind your creation for one, but also how closely names shape our identity. It’s part of the original conception of something new, even for something as simple as a garlic press, which similar to me calling myself World Bringer, is named only for what it does. Except, if that garlic press pops a hinge and no longer works, where does that leave it? It’s not really a garlic press anymore. Not one that works anyway. At that point it’s called a broken garlic press, ostensibly worthless. Following that line of reasoning, if I, as a storyteller, run out of “creative juice” (discipline vs. the muse, yet another blog topic…) or somehow lose the capacity to tell stories, does that make me broken? Maybe. Does it make me worthless? Certainly not. So what does happen if your identity, wrapped up in works, suddenly slips the way of the dodo? What name do you use then?
A friend of mine recently recommended a TED talk by Simon Sinek called Start with Why which discusses how great leaders start from Why they do what they do, work out to How they do it and finally, to What they do, as opposed to most of us who approach it from the opposite direction. When I look at myself as World Bringer or Storyteller or anything else relating to what I do, then, am I going the right direction? Or, to get at what this post is really about, if I root my identity in doing what the Bible says (to the best of my flawed ability), with the heart attitude the Bible talks about (to the best of my flawed ability) because God demands it or, on my wiser days, because God loves me and I want to love Him back and please Him, am I really being known or following a list? Am I in relationship or works? Donald Miller says in Searching for God Knows What that “Being a Christian is more like falling in love than understanding a series of ideas.” The classic story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) and countless other places in the Bible point to the same thing. I’ll be honest and say the desire to perform is rooted deeply in me. I’ve never engaged (or at least been caught) in many of the big fish kinds of sins that Christians (including myself) are often so quick to condemn, and for a very long time cleaning the outside of my little pharisee cup has seemed to work just fine. It’s only been recently I’ve started to see how deeply that prideful root goes, and begun to realize that maybe I should be looking at this the other way around. God loves me. Because he loved me first (why), I want to love others with the love He is growing in me (how), by doing the things the Bible says (what). In that order.
What we name things
Juliet says “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In context, she’s saying that Romeo’s last name or her own should not be enough to keep them apart, that what they are called does not override what they are, which is madly in love.
I can’t say for sure that I entirely believe that. Because Hoyt is a spirit, and a trail name does reflect who you are, and family names do include the history that has led to you being born. Romeo would not exist as a person without the family line of the Montagues, nor Juliet without the Capulets. You can’t have a character without the larger context of the story, so to speak, and if you name people for them to be known, changing somebody’s last name (assuming changing it would actually change the family they came from, not just a legal change) would change them.
Yet, I know people whose names don’t seem to fit them at all. There are people who don’t like their names, who feel they don’t fit them, who change them as they grow. Hip hop artists can be great examples of this (Snoop Lion, anyone?), or Abraham, Sarah, or Peter. In this way, names are strange. They can be oddly superficial (ultimately calling a rose a tulip won’t change its nature) or completely life changing (such the tragedy of bullying). Yet, perhaps the trick is simply finding the right one. Having the wrong name can veil the truth. This is true in writing, in misdiagnoses, in being bullied, being an international spy or in being a Montague or Capulet. Heck, entire species have gone unnoticed for being grouped with other, similar species. But, what if we had the right name? Our true one? Our entire lives are spent figuring out who we are. It’s like digging for dinosaur bones, but what if we could see the whole thing? What if all the bones hiding in the sand could be brought to the surface and known? What name could we possibly use to encompass all that we are, without misidentification? I’m going to go ahead and offer that we won’t know that until we’re told (Revelations 2:17), but one thing I’m nearly sure of, it’s not going to be garlic press.