Has this ever happened to you? You run into a friend that you haven’t seen for a long time. You’re happy to see him because you have fond memories of laughter and camaraderie. You’ve always enjoyed his company. You have no idea why you grew apart in the first place. But you can’t introduce him to your significant other because… his name is on the tip of your tongue… what is it again?
We place so much value on the naming of people, places and things. It’s as if we must be able to pin things down, validate them, make them a part of our world by calling them something. The right thing. The proper thing. It’s important to name things to prove you know what or who they are. Why?
Is the accurate description of a thing what causes it to be real? Like Schrödinger’s cat, can a thing’s state of existence only be locked in when it’s observed? Is calling you by name the only way to prove that you are truly alive?
When land is colonized, the place names often get changed. For example, Mount St. Helens used to be called Suek by the Native Americans who lived there. Names are powerful things. Renaming says, “Your sense of the reality of this mountain isn’t valid. We take ownership of this place and its history is now our history. Nothing else counts.” It’s the ultimate violation.
And yet, the mountain itself is still the mountain. But even calling it “the mountain” is a sort of naming, is it not? That tall mound of… oh, bother. Everything is a description. You could keep an image of it in your head, but you’d have no way of discussing it with others without some commonly agreed upon name.
If a name is what defines something, shouldn’t people choose their own names? I have never felt like a Barbara. No one could ever know me as well as I know myself. And yet, the name I would choose for myself now is probably not the name I would have chosen 20 years ago. I am constantly changing. But my name stays the same. I kind of feel as though I should be able to shed it like old skin. But there’s no cultural mechanism in place for that.
Words have value. They help us connect with each other, and with the wider world. But maybe we need to find a way to work on our interior sense of who or what constitutes the true essence of things, before we lose the ability to do so.