What’s in a Name

October 3

Dear Leslie,

Names are powerful. I’ve written about this before in regards to gender identity and the names we are given at birth on my invisible About page, amongst other places. On my other blog, I shared a poem called Emily, which plays with my complicated relationship with my first name. It’s incredible what effects the names we call ourselves or others call us (or the pronouns and nouns used in reference to us) can have on our sense of self. When people use the correct names in a respectful manner, we may feel seen. Present.

I have a lot of nicknames both as an Emily and carrier of a unique last name. During any given week, I hear many variations of my names, or am addressed with entirely different, yet no less valid nicknames. Through all these names, those collections of letters and syllables, I am the same and yet also different person to so many. Meeting new folks is always interesting, especially in regards to names exchanged; sometimes I catch myself wondering which to offer. As someone who is usually upbeat but formal during introductions, I share my first name. When others are doing the introducing, I find myself a spectator on the bleachers, wondering which name of mine will sail through the air and be tossed to the other team.

I’ve always been protective of one of my nicknames because of how vulnerable it makes me feel. It’s mostly reserved for my youth soccer team and two of my cousins. It’s a softer and sweet contraction of my first name and I associate it with affectionate mutual love and understanding. I feel playful, seen, and loved when my teammates, their families, and my cousins call me this name. Naturally, I don’t let just anyone call me this. It’s a matter of self-protection. Because the name carries a level of intimacy, I don’t share it with strangers, acquaintances, or even most friends. Maybe this sounds strange, but I feel like it would give them the power to hurt me. To misuse that name would be a betrayal of trust.

I used to shift uncomfortably when friends introduced me to others as as “Emi.” I wanted to correct them, or just offer “Emily” to the other person instead. I could tell my friends, “I’m only Emi to you. I’m not that person for others.” My beliefs remain largely the same on this. My gut reaction to being introduced this way is alarm and discomfort at being so exposed. For the most part, I would prefer to be regarded and addressed as one of my more common names.

Yet, I’ve also noticed something beautiful. When one of my friends whom I met through several mutual soccer friends calls me by this nickname, it is with the same level of warmth and love shared by the teammates I grew up laughing with and passing the ball with as a kid. Although I was first offput by the ease with which she called me Emi, I find myself touched. I call her the nickname our friends shared with me. And somehow, even though we did not grow up with each other, even though we were not part of the same circles and forming the same memories, we have bridged some of those divides just by sharing friends and using these names for each other. What a gift.

In light of these revelations and the tragic mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in my state this week, I remind myself that we need to come together as individuals and communities rather than erect or buttress more walls to divide us from each other. We should never deny ourselves or others the right to love or be loved, as long as the love is considerate. There are many shades of love—different ways to show our respect, understanding, support, and affection for others. We have had so many mass shootings in this country—so many individuals whom for whatever reason, feel isolated, misunderstood, numb, or just hateful. I don’t know what all causes someone to cut others down, but I do know that we can better reach out to each other. We can actively appreciate those around us through genuine greetings, and respect for their beings. We can be brave and allow others to hold our names and even lives in their arms, hoping that they will honor us as we honor them.

Sometimes there are beautiful benefits to allowing ourselves to be vulnerable —Brene Brown describes how in her powerful TED Talk. It is through pushing through initial discomfort that we often find ourselves grow. The courage to try new things and be open with others is unspeakably important if we are to transcend fears and prejudices which can hurt ourselves and others.

Perhaps we should surprise ourselves sometimes by letting others use our names.

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