What’s in a Name?

Growing up, I didn’t particularly like my name. I didn’t know many other Wendy-s, and none of the kids in my school shared my name. That made me feel sort of weird and old-fashioned and out-of-place. I wish I’d had the self-confidence to relish being unique, but alas, a lot of my childhood was spent anxiously trying to fit in. Research apparently shows that liking your name leads to better self-esteem. Figures.

While my family had a penchant for nicknames, as a kid I didn’t like any of the ones attributed to me. I could always sense some edge of mockery and begged others not to use them.  When it came to my name, I felt no agency, no particular connection to my sense of identity, no attachment. But it’s okay. I’m in therapy now.

Names are powerful things. Within moments of meeting someone, people will make a first impression and assumptions about a person. And a lot of that will have to do with your name. Names often reveal things, whether intentionally or not, about a person’s sex, gender, and possibly even religion. How many reading this were christened with a name from the bible? Back in the day I would have given anything to be a Deborah, or an Esther, or a Hannah.

I’ve been pondering the power of names, particularly since our last Ontario GS retreat. In the final sharing circle, we had the unique experience of being invited into the sacred trust of several folks revealing a new, self-chosen name. Names can carry such a weight that these moments felt particularly significant. A therapist within our community expressed to us some reservation with the celebration of our community of such tender moments – wondering about the weight of quick affirmation and the gravity of it all. Name changes have become a somewhat familiar experience within Generous Space. Many of us are getting well practiced at remembering new names and adjusting pronouns for folks as they make their desires known.

I remember when a woman in my childhood community requested that people start calling her by her given Dutch name that had been anglicized when she and her family immigrated. I remember it feeling odd to think of her differently after 40 some odd years – and yet important to honour this reclamation. One of my own siblings adopted a variation on her given name around the time she went to university. Most of the family carried on using the name we’d called her during her childhood. One day she was candid with me about how she felt frustrated about this and I immediately began referring to her by her chosen name. I thought I was honouring a special family connection by using the older form of her name – she made it clear this made her feel erased and silenced.

Names are powerful things. They are connected to our sense of identity – identity that inevitably evolves and shifts through the seasons of our life. Yet many of us carry names that we had no say in choosing. And the weight we often feel, sometimes the sense of loyalty to parents and those who have special connection to our names, can make it a complicated thing as we are trying to clarify who we are and how we want to present ourselves.

This even happens with last names. I took my spouse’s last name when I married 25 years ago. I really didn’t know any other option. It was tradition. The woman gave up that part of her identity. I was a johnny-come-lately or should I say a judy-come-lately to feminism. When I published my book, I made the decision to insert my maiden name (maiden? really?) into my name. It suddenly seemed important to me. When I hung up my degrees on the wall last week, I took notice of Bachelor: VanderWal; Masters: Gritter; Doctorate: VanderWal Gritter. Guess I’m still figuring it out – this business of who I am and what matters to me.

On one of the panels this summer for a screening of our film, “Resilient Faith” one of our non-binary siblings shared about how important it was for them to “try out” their new name and new pronouns in the safety and confidentiality of the GS community. They spoke about the freedom they felt knowing that if they changed their name or their pronouns, back to what it was before or to something entirely different, that the GS community would take it in stride, honour their wishes, and do their best to adjust. It struck me what a rare gift this is.

  1. One: in the GS community people have the opportunity to learn about new language and ways of better understanding and describing their experiences and sense of identity. I have to admit, sometimes I wonder how things might have been different in my own journey had I had any awareness or exposure to the concept of non-binary gender identity.  As someone who cherishes diversity and options, I love that people feel like they can learn and explore and try out what might fit them best. This is honouring someone’s agency and not allowing the insecurities or discomfort of others project unhelpful expectations or rigidity.

  2. Two: while names are weighty, they shouldn’t be sacred cows that contribute to a person feeling like they don’t fit with such a significant part of themselves. And I think being playful with names, experimenting with names, in the context of safe, loving, and non-judgmental community, might just be an important part of someone’s journey to clarify their identity and what matters to them.

  3. Three: having a community that has become somewhat practiced at being flexible and adapting to name changes is super helpful. Some of the internal resistance that inevitably emerges for most of us when we’re asked to change something, becomes less of an issue when we are familiar with the process, learn the muscle memory of a new name or new pronouns, and connect the value and honour it bestows on an individual to the effort it takes.

  4. Four: being loved while in process, before things are resolved, in the midst of some amount of fluidity, embracing tension and uncertainty, would seem to be so simple – but isn’t easy to find. In GS, we do our best to embrace the mess, loving people right where they are, without burdening them with expectations of what would make us more comfortable. This gives people freedom to keep on discerning, to make adjustments, to discard something they tried – but that ultimately didn’t fit – without any “gotcha” shaming that so often acts like a vice around LGBTQ+ folks’ choices. Someone who tries out a new name, new pronouns, new label – doesn’t have to carry the weight of upholding all the understanding and definition of that particular identity in GS – they can simply search for what is most authentic to them in the confidence that no matter where they land – or if they land – they are Beloved and they Belong!

  5. Five: rather than being threatened by the deconstruction of particular categories, GS has learned to embrace the queering of human identity. What I mean by this is that we value the freedom and autonomy of individuals to explore and experiment with how they want to describe and present themselves to others. There is creativity and joy and freedom and bravery in this. The Creator reveals themselves in an infinitely diverse creation – full of beauty, uniqueness, and things that don’t fit typical categories. The experience of being alive is an evolving one – not static, not staid, not predictable. In GS we not only want to embrace this wildness – but also attune ourselves to see the gift therein. What might we learn about Creator by listening to the experience of the one plumbing the depths of a sense of identity that is unfamiliar to us? Oh the possibilities!

So… what’s in a name? Potential. Beauty. Strength. Choice. Courage. Creativity. Gift.