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Why naming something has so much power


Public Domain

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/02/22

Our ability to give something or someone a name is a gift from God.

I have to admit that one of my biggest pet peeves is when people call me by the wrong name.

Typically, I let it slide and don’t make a big deal out of it, but internally I wince. I know the mistake doesn’t happen out of intentional malice, but still, I can’t help but feel a little resentment. So much so that I’ve started pointing out to people calmly but honestly that, if they continue using the wrong name, it will slowly but surely create a problem in our relationship. It’s that important.

You might be wondering how in the world so many people could get my name wrong so consistently. All you Michaels out there will instantly know what I’m about to say – people call me Mike. Which isn’t my name. There are lots of Mikes out there and the name fits them and they like it. I think all you Mikes are great. It doesn’t happen to be my name, that’s all.

It’s shockingly frequent that, in an introduction or an email, I’ll say or sign my name and the immediate response is to shorten and change it. Not the biggest problem, I know, but there really is something in a name. There’s a certain mysterious power they have. Over time, they develop and grow until they fit our personality perfectly.

I suppose that’s why Adam had such trouble naming the first animals, or why Moses trembled in asking God what the divine name might be (and, interestingly, was told that the name of God is privileged information). It’s why parents agonize and think and pray about baby names for months, if not years, or why the name of a pet is so important. Toddlers still learning to speak will point out and proudly name a tree, a ball, or a dog. It’s how they begin making a personal connection with the world.

Our ability to name, or the ability to use language to describe and define — even if language has limits — is a gift bestowed on humanity by God. We alone of all His creatures have it.

That doesn’t mean we always know how to use it.

Naming what we feel and experience

I learned many decades ago that within me there swirls a complex, convoluted, and entirely irrational web of emotions, prejudices, and personality flaws. For years, I carried these around, unknown and unexamined. I had no clue why I thought what I thought, why I acted the way I acted, said the things I said. It all spilled out of me almost instinctually. Later, I would be embarrassed about it and wonder why I hadn’t behaved in a more rational manner.

Because I wasn’t able to identify and accurately name what was going on inside of myself, I had no consistent ability to control my thoughts and actions. It led to a lot of angst and melancholy. Since realizing that, I’ve promised to myself to do the necessary work to name and understand. This is the first step in living with more self-awareness. I have a long way to go – I suspect it’s a life-long project – but even with slight progress I’ve noticed significant improvements.

If I can name the reason why I’m stressed, recognize that I’m angry, or admit jealousy, then I can take steps to correct it. If I can name the reason I’m happy, why my friends are so valuable to me, why my family is worth attention even when I’m tired, then I can express gratitude and seek out more of those life-affirming experiences and people.

When used to accurately identify negative character flaws, naming reveals an absence that then allows me to identify an opposite virtue I desire. Used in a positive sense, a name helps me to acknowledge successes, describe future goals, and ascribe value. A name is a creative gift, a spiritual link between a person, experience, or inner quality I value so much. The name reaches out and seeks underlying reality. It reveals beauty and the love at the heart of existence. It’s all, I suppose, a way of trying to call out and name the underlying virtue of love.

I just went really deep, there, but I assure you I’m sincere. This year, looking ahead at the kind of person I want to become and the challenges I’d like to accept, the first step is to fearlessly identify and name both good and bad. The reason why isn’t because I desire to control the universe, thinking I can name anything however I want because I’m in charge. Quite the opposite. I think that understanding a name requires humility. It’s a chance to gain perspective, to reach out to that which is lovable.

It’s a special type of knowledge, love is. It cuts all the way to the core. It can be supremely difficult to name, but I believe it’s worth the risk.

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