What’s in a name?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what brings us together and what keeps us apart as a civilization. Right now, it’s not feeling so civilized, at least in the part of the world in which I was born and have chosen to live. I’ve written the past few months about how the Universe will draw our attention, sometimes in violent ways, to things that need our action to bring them back into balance. It starts subtly, with small signs.. quiet, like the soft ticking of a clock. But when we don’t pay attention, it grows louder and more urgent, like a drumbeat.. then finally falls on our heads like a sledgehammer. I’m pretty sure we’re in the sledgehammer stage now.
One thing that has struck me just as hard lately is our reluctance to name the enemy. It got me thinking about naming rituals, superstitions and lore.
Most of us are named at birth, and, sometimes to our great chagrin, are stuck with that name until we die or take the (in terms of ticking off your parents) drastic measure of changing it once we’re older, or just asking folks to call us by a middle name, nickname, or a name we really like. My mother (who didn’t like her name, Dorothy, but said it was better than the other name her mother considered – Mafalda) told me that I was named after Sammy Davis Jr.’s daughter, who was born a few months before me. I liked it, because I thought it suited me better than the other names she considered – Susan, Barbara, Patricia – and because it was unusual at the time. Now everyone and their sister (and brother) is named Tracy, which takes away some of the specialness of it. Most people call me Trace, though, and I’m okay with that. I looked up the meaning as a child and found more than one – “one who adds,” “the supplanter,” “superior,” “fighter,” “fiery one” were a few that came up (I liked that last one a lot). But it most likely began as a designation of someone from the Greek territory of Thrace.
Some cultures name their children after ideals rather than just happening to like a particular name’s sound. An Egyptian friend once asked me what my son’s name (Gideon) means, and was horrified when I answered “Destroyer.” Of course, that’s not why we named him that, but, ironically, my son’s birth was the beginning of the destruction of a very unhappy life, so that a healthy, joyful one could unfold. So I suppose he was well-named. When I worked as a facilitator at Seeds of Peace camp and worked with people from many countries, I was intrigued and pleased that so many would say, “My name is ______, which means ______.” They proudly owned the meaning of their name in a way I found wonderful. They had names that meant “Queen,” or “Beloved,” or “Humorous,” or “Lucky.” Their parents hoped that their names would imbue their children with certain desirable qualities.
Some cultures wait a while until the child is a certain age, and name them based on the child’s inherent qualities or characteristics. Some look for a sign from their ancestors and give their babies the name they’re led to. Others name their offspring for family members, living or passed on, creating or continuing a tradition. Some (celebrities seem to be keen on this method) go for unusual names, or words we wouldn’t at all think of as names, to make their child stand out. A recent example is the child of Elon Musk and Grimes (no slouches when it comes to interesting names), who has reportedly been named X Æ A-12. Good luck pronouncing that one, kindergarten teacher.
Each of these traditions show the importance of our name. It’s one of the ways we are presented, or present ourselves, to the world. In French and Spanish, when introducing themselves, they say “I call myself….” rather than “my name is” as we do in English. The difference is subtle, but meaningful.
Names have power and significance – cultural, social and Spiritual. In a previous blog, I wrote about the power of affirmations – what we say after the words “I am” becomes our reality. But something else has been dancing around in my head recently. As important, it seems, as saying your own or someone’s name is – NOT speaking a name. We all know at least one famous example of “He Who Must Not Be Named.” And Yahweh or Jehovah stemmed from names that were considered too godly for mere mortals to be uttered, and were sometimes “humanized” to simply, “I am.”
We are in the midst of a pandemic, and about two weeks after our government finally began to take it somewhat seriously and called it such, the commercials started on television, as we all knew they would. Invariably, they spoke of the illness that must not be named. Instead we heard stuff like this:
“In these difficult and trying times…”
“As our lives change in unprecedented ways…”
“Now that we are spending more time at home….”
“Now more than ever…”
It’s as if some unknown and unseen force came from nowhere and is acting upon us in some mysterious way that is suddenly making life very inconvenient, or it’s too embarrassing or uncomfortable to mention, like feminine hygiene products or diarrhea medicine (though even they are named in ads nowadays, much to our cringing dismay). Perhaps if we don’t say things like “COVID-19,” or “novel coronavirus,” it will go away faster. But speak of the devil, and the devil will appear.
Advertisers do a lot of research and spend a lot of money to keep their fingers on the pulse of how Americans are thinking and feeling. They know that people don’t like to be reminded of uncomfortable facts, unless the advertisers can sell them something that makes them less uncomfortable:
“We’re here for you.”
“Our product/service will give you hope/keep you safe.”
“We will keep (our workers, whether we can keep them safe or not) working for you.”
“We understand/can help.”
I anticipated these commercials, and I had a bit of fun almost counting down to when they would appear. Keeping up with current events is a sign of a well-hired ad agency.
But as the pandemic dragged on (and still drags on as I write this) and fatigue set in, and people in power began to see the need for a more palpable enemy – one that their followers could vilify and rail and vote against – the feared object changed, but whether it was named depended on the “side” one was on.
Governments which imposed rules were either “controllers” or “keeping us safe.”
People who wore masks were either “conscientious and caring” or “sheeple controlled by others”
Health agencies were either telling “facts about the pandemic” or “spouting fake news to control us and destroy the economy”
People making their voices heard in their community were either “protesters” or “thugs,” usually depending on the color of their skin.
The color of their skin…? Yes, because we have not just one unseen enemy, but many. Let’s name a few – because there’s power in naming:
Pandemic, Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19
Racism, Classism, White Privilege
Police Brutality, Depraved Indifference, Murder
Oligarchy, Authoritarianism, War
As we become adults we get to name ourselves. But changing our name, or refusing to speak a name that describes us, usually doesn’t change who we are.
The illness that is sweeping the globe, COVID-19, caused by a novel (heretofore unknown) coronavirus doesn’t disappear because we refuse to name it, or we deny it or pretend it’s a hoax. It remains a deadly pandemic.
Amy Cooper, the votes-liberal white woman in Central Park who called the police, knowing that she was being recorded, telling Christian Cooper, the black man and avid birdwatcher who was recording her, “I’m calling the police to tell them an African American man is threatening me,” (and then did so, feigning a frightened, breathless and panicked voice) even though his only “threat” was asking her to leash her dog, later said “I’m not a racist.” She remains a racist.
The Minneapolis police department, whose officers knelt on George Floyd’s back and neck despite his pleas until he suffocated to death said that their rogue officers Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng do not reflect the bulk of the police force, yet it took them days to fire the men, arrest Derek Chauvin and charge him with murder. They remain a cog in the machine of an oppressive system designed to sow fear, anger and racial tension among others who would just as soon live in peace if they had their choice.
What you call yourself doesn’t necessarily make you who you are. What you don’t name doesn’t make it nonexistent. And refusing to acknowledge the people, or understating them or denying them to keep those who die in a pandemic or in racial violence or police mistreatment anonymous does not make them disappear. The names themselves become a monument, and a rallying cry.
Say their names.