Names matter

Imagine yourself in a supermarket, a mall, a street, and suddenly you hear behind you: ‘hey, you!’ Or ‘oi’ when in England. Would you turn around to find out who is calling? Would you think it could be meant for you? Maybe, if this person’s voice sounds familiar. Chances are however you will not turn around, because you would assume – and rightly so – that the person calling you would use your name.
Names and identity go together like horse and carriage. Names are the labels by which we makes ourselves known in the world, by which we recognize each other. Nothing is more annoying than the blurry conversations in which someone constantly refers to others as: ah, you know, the blond guy from the third floor, or, the tall lass that lives next to the postoffice. They have names. Use them. And if you don’t know their names, then say so.
Equally annoying and disrespectful is, after being corrected more than once, to keep on using a wrong name. You know, saying Rob when it’s actually Bob, or calling Anna Ann every time you meet.
Names, and yes, the proper names, are vital when it comes to being known, being recognized as a person, and of course making yourself known to others. People without name are anonymous people, just someone, no one in particular. At best a ‘hey, you’ in the street. At worst a number sewn on the jacket or tattooed on the wrist.
As soon as somebody is called by the name he or she stops being just anyone. One person can be distinguished from another. That is why names are such an important part of rituals. When children are christened they receive a name of their own, apart from their family name. When we marry we call each other by the name: I take thee, Eliza, to be my wife. Not just any woman. No, her, only her, no one else.
Most memorial ceremonies involve a calling of names. A gathering on Ground Zero would be unthinkable without respectfully reciting the names. Just mentioning that 2977 people died here would be even more unthinkable. The same goes for every place where lost ones and dear ones are remembered.
That is why the graves of unknown soldiers are cherished in almost every country. Although we do not know his name, we know for sure he had one. And he was, like all the others, a son, a father, a brother. And he did give his life for the sake of many. How easily could this man fall into oblivion for the single fact of not having a name to put on his grave, let alone return him to his family. Precisely for this reason we give this person a central place in our community and mark this place with special attention. Lest we forget.
The names people give their children, the names we give each or even ourselves, they all have to do with identity. With knowing the other, knowing yourself and feel yourself being known. More than once I experienced in my work that people with progressive Alzheimers respond less and less to their adult names, Mr Patterson, Mrs Fraser. But their faces light up when called by their childhood name: Johnny, Elsie. We need those names desperately to feel human and known and whole again.
The most beautiful story on this theme I read last week in the gospel of John. A woman, thoroughly saddened and heartbroken, goes into a garden where her dearest friend, her beloved Jesus is buried. So blinded by grief is she, that she does not recognize the person talking to her. She thinks he is a gardener. A stranger, just someone, no one in particular. And that is how she herself feels as well. Just a desperate, grieving, mourning woman who lost her beloved friend. Deprived of everything worth living for, the only thing left for her is to dwell around in this life-forsaken place, his grave. The place where everything comes to an end and nothing new begins.
This situation of standstill, of frozenness is only broken when she hears her name. That’s when she stops being just someone. This person apparently knows her, for he knows her name. She becomes herself again by being recognized, by hearing her own name: Mary. Then she remembers who she was, one of Jesus’ close and dear friends. And then she is able to see who this unknown gardener really is. Jesus, her beloved friend.
Not only is she reestablished in her identity, she is given a new one. Her love and loyalty had made her undergo the darkness and the bitter loneliness of the grave almost literally together with him, because she simply could not and would not leave him behind. Now she is the first to witness that this grave was not the end of everything, but the beginning of something new. That even from the pit of death people are called back to life. Called by their very name: light, friend, my love.

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