Your name has a story to tell

May 31st, 2017

"My name has a story to tell, but the main character isn’t here," writes Latina poet, America Luna. "My name has the definition of dreams and opportunities within my family. It’s a reminder of my parent’s dreams and hard work. It’s a remembrance of the person I love and hate the most."

Every name tells a story. My name does. Your name does. Your name can tell you from whom you’ve come and where you're from.  

My last name is Taylor. It goes all the way back across the pond to some sort of Scots-Irish ancestry, at least as far as anyone could figure. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but my aunt used to say that her extensive research through the branches of our family tree revealed, for better or worse, we are related to a former president named Zachary, who was the last President to own slaves while holding office. So, there’s that. And somewhere along the way, we were grafted into a Native American lineage, which I find pride in. In addition to our last names, my dad and I share our middle, Louis. We also share a family system of addiction. 

My first name is Gregg. Three G's not two. My mother maintains that the last G on the end serves as a period to make clear that my name is just Gregg. Full stop. Not Gregory. For some reason, she didn’t like the name Gregory, but that hasn’t stopped people from spelling my name with two G's rather than three or from calling me, Gregory. It also hasn’t deterred folks from shortening the whole thing to call me 'G' — which I guess all people with the name Greg, Gregory, or Gregg share. Sometimes friends have built on my 3G name to refer to me with nicknames like Triple G, G-money or G-force. 

Your name tells a story, a story that goes well beyond the name your parents have chosen for you to include how others have tagged you. When I was in fifth grade I was quite mouthy. During class one afternoon, I was popping off. A friend named Eugene got a little tired of it and said, "Just shut up you little taterbug!" The class erupted in laughter, chanting, "Taterbug, Taterbug, Taterbug," you know how kids do. My face turned red and I shut up. From then on my name was no longer Gregg; everyone just called me Taterbug. By the time I got to high school, I was just Bug. 

Since entering the ranks of the clergy many years ago, some folks have preferred to call me "Rev," a title turned into a name which I've always felt a bit uncomfortable with since most of the time I feel irreverent. I hardly ever use it to describe myself except on the rare occasion when it gives me an easy access parking spot at the hospital when visiting folks. 

But not all names and the stories they tell are created equal. Sometimes names defame. They remind us that we'd do anything to forget from whom we've come and where we're from. These shame names have a way of seeping into the soul to sabotage our dignity and worth. Insidiously, they terrorize and torture us in a legion of ways, sucking life out of us, spinning lies we end up believing about ourselves, leading us to the point of self-destruction. Breaking free from these shame names is not easy. Like a friend of mine who as a young girl was told repeatedly by her alcoholic, abusive mother, "Just shut up! You’re never going to be anything but a drunk just like me!" Although she never wrote it on any name tag, the name embedded deep in her identity and by which she learned to understand herself was "A Drunk Like Your Mom." Care to venture a guess as to what her life has been like?

Like folks in African-American, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American communities who have had to endure the shame names given to them not only by individuals but by systems and structures. We all know what those names are. God, forgive us if we've ever used them. 

Like people who live next door to you, shop with you at the grocery store, and sit in pews with you at your place of worship, living day to day with mental health and addiction challenges, courageously fighting against the burdensome weight of stigmatizing and shaming labels.  

Like the 2.3 million men, women, and children incarcerated in the U.S. who have had their given names stripped and supplanted by a number — prisoner #1973750, for example.

Like a ten-year-old boy I met in the kitchen of a church where I was speaking one ‪Sunday morning. Two boys, about ten years old, ran in, chasing each other, screaming. They stopped in their tracks, surprised to see me. 

"Hey, guys. I’m Gregg. What are your names?"

The bigger kid says a little out of breath, "Terrance."

"And what’s yours," I say to his sweaty little friend.

"Don’t have one."

"Oh? Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone without a name. So what do people call you when they want to talk with you or get your attention?"


"Really? Well, what’s the name your mom and dad gave you when you were born?"

" 'Willie.' That’s my dad’s name too. But they just call me asshole." 

Because names are bestowed upon us by others — family, friends, enemies, acquaintances, strangers, or systems and structures — they express how those naming us see us, and can have immense power to shape identity and destiny. If the most important people in your life constantly name you "asshole," what do you think it’s going to be like to be you? "Researchers have shown that our names take root deep within our mental worlds," writes NYU professor Adam Alter, "drawing us magnetically towards the concepts they embody. When Carl Jung, one of the most famous psychiatrists of the 20th century, once wondered why he was so fixated on the concept of rebirth, the answer arrived in a flash of insight: his name meant 'young,' and from birth he had been preoccupied by the concepts of youth, aging, and rebirth … Many years later, in 1994, a contributor to the Feedback column in the New Scientist magazine labeled the phenomenon nominative determinism, literally meaning 'name-driven outcome.' "

Some cultures have taken this particularly seriously, for example, the ancient Hebrews, Native Americans, and Nigerians. The Nigerians have a proverb which says, "When a person is given a name, his gods accept it." Alter goes on to say that this "explains why exhausted parents sometimes name their children Dumaka ('help me with her hands') or Obiageli ('one who has come to eat')."  

Not long ago I officiated the wedding of a young Nigerian man whose first name is Olisaeloka, pronounced Oh-lee-say-loka. When he was born, his parents, overjoyed about the gift of this baby boy, gave him a name which both held and expressed the story of their great delight that he was now in this world. In the Nigerian language of Igbo, Olisaeloka means, "God is very thoughtful!" In other words, Olisaeloka is a name which tells the story of a young man who has grown up knowing that he is a gift — God's gift to his parents, to his people, to the world. I wonder what it would be like to live with that identity, into that story. 

I told Olisaeloka that I wish I could take his name for myself sometimes, especially during seasons when I need to be reminded of the story of a God who pays attention. Come to think of it, I wish I could re-name a lot of people Oleisaloka; people who live with shame names they can't seem to shake, which drive them to a perpetual place of loneliness and despair. People who live thinking that God doesn't give them a second thought, or doesn't think of them at all, or thinks they are colossal disappointments, or a waste of space, assholes. Folks, like me, who need to be reminded of the story of a God who thinks very highly of them, has them in mind all the time, dreaming for them, and caring deeply about what it means for all of us to live the fullest expressions of who we are. People whose names remind them that they'd do anything to forget from whom they've come and where they're from.

"I will call you by name," Jesus says to those who have been known by many shame names. And in some place deep within our created-in-the-image-of-God identity, in the space where a light exists that no darkness or shame or defamation can extinguish, there in that space, he says, the voice of the one calling our name is familiar. 

I suppose the name he calls us is the one we recognize as holding the essence of who we are and tells the story about how God sees us — the goodness and divine dignity so easy to forget, the gift of what it means to know that God is very thoughtful to consider it a good idea for you, me, and all of us to be in the world together, and the story about there never being a time when God has not held us in love and accessed our lives with an unreasonable compassion.

Perhaps the most transformative thing we can do for each other is to give each other space to tell our dehumanizing stories of naming and then to hold those stories with compassion and gentleness. And then at some point along the way share an alternative narrative that goes something like this: No matter what name you've been given, no matter the shame name you've carried, God is very thoughtful to have given what may feel to you like a new name, but, I suspect, is the name by which God has always known you, as the prophet writes. 

No longer do you have to carry the weight of a shame name like A Drunk Like Your Mom or Asshole or Crazy or Prisoner #1973750, or any of the countless other names you may have been burdened with, like Stupid, A Mistake, A Disappointment, Not Good Enough, or Unwanted. No! You are invited to live a story shaped by the name embedded in your identity by Compassionate Love, the name given to you by the main character who is always here. The name God gave you when first laying eyes on you. You are ... My Delight. You are ... The One God Finds Wild Joy In. You are … My Deep Gladness Just Because You Are In The World.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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