Sunday, January 3, 2010

What's In a Name?

I know this will seem quite ridiculous. But, here it is anyway. The other day I spent running around and hitting some of the after-the-holidays sales at a few department stores. I had a gift certificate to spend at a particular store, one we had dropped a considerable sum of money during our Christmas shopping excursion. The day I went was also the expiration date on the $10 coupon.

I wanted a new pair of house slippers for the winter and, since I would never pay the kind of prices this particular store charges for slippers on a normal day, I took advantage of the sale and got the cutest pair of blue slippers (blue is my favorite color) for about 80% off of the original price. That's my kind of shopping.

And my husband was quite happy as well.

Anyway, to the point. Later, when we got home and I was taking the tags off of the slippers, I happened to notice the brand name attached to the inside sole. I won't drop that name here; but suffice it to say the name is of a very famous designer. Most of us will never own an article of clothing designed by this stellar talent. But I'm walking around with her name on my feet.

Does it make the slippers any softer? Not really. The quality is excellent; don't misunderstand. But, they were no more comfortable after I knew the designer's name that before I knew it.
So, what's in a name? Why do we assign so much value to the word we use to identify one thing or another?

Being that words are my life's passion, I have to be careful with this. I love the pictures language can paint. But, we have to be so cautious with the value we give to simple words. More directly, the words we use to name people. As children, we learn that certain labels make people okay; and others make them unacceptable. Those values determine whether we give love and acceptance, or withhold them and offer judgment, fear, and hate in return. What names equate acceptance? White, thin, gay, fat, straight? What is tolerable?

Believer? Christian? We form the judgment in our heads almost automatically. Human beings are classifiers. One quick sweep up and down and the person is classified; filed away in our internal filing system and treated accordingly.

How many hearts have been broken because of what's in a name?

Maybe it would be a gift if we were blind to those classifications, at least until we got the chance to know the person. Then, maybe we would understand that human beings are deeper than their skin color, more than their sexual orientation, beyond the religion they happen to accept. A word, a label would not be the entirety of their existence.

I've had a front row seat to the destruction an unsuitable classification can render. Whole families have been divided over the changes a new label can bring. Friendships have fallen to the superiority of one name over another. Sometimes, they have failed to even get off the ground because once the die was cast, there was nothing left to do but walk away.

How sad it is to think that something so simple can close off one person to another. How can a simple word like Baptist, or female, or Democrat describe the complete character of a human being? So much of the picture is missing.

In this instance, I envy very small children who delight in the taste of language on their tongues, and the smiles of the faces their eyes hold. They don't know enough yet to drop people into their appropriate groups.

They see a smile and simply return it.