For some people, even the freedom of being called by their name has been taken away.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, poet, teacher, gardener and artist wrote an extraordinary book of verse, Call Me By My True Names. In the title poem he describes how we are all interconnected, or in his description, how we “inter-be”. So we are both the twelve year old girl, a refuge on a boat, who is raped by a pirate and then commits suicide, and we are all the pirate, our hearts “not yet capable of seeing and loving”. He ends the poem with these lines, “Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.”
In the more literal sense of true names, I have always loved to hear people’s full names. So I am Penelope, not Penny, as I was called as a child. I find I get very reactive when people who have just met me call me Penny. It feels like not me, not who I am, Penny, and Penelope does . Just as my daughter, Ariadne, does not like to be called Ari, which was her childhood nickname. At fourteen, she made all her friends call her by her true name; they resisted mightily, saying it was too hard to remember, too difficult to pronounce. Undaunted, she would walk them through it, syllable by syllable: “R- E- odd-knee”[She underlined the “odd” by grimacing and pointing to her head as though she were weird . And for the last syllable, she would point to her knee]
I don’t mind nicknames for others, if that is what they choose. I can go with Peggy, or Sue, Jim or Joe. I find, however, I am always moved to ask, “Do you prefer to be called Peggy or Elizabeth? Joe or Joseph?” I am always delighted if they say “Actually, Joseph, but no one ever calls me that.” That often prompts me to ask, “Could I call you Joseph?” I don’t completely understand my preference, given that we live in a country of nicknames, short cuts, fast lines of all kinds. But there is such an inherent respect in saying someone’s whole name, a holding of a larger value, somehow.
I love the sound of the longer word-name, and I am enchanted to learn, if I don’t already know, the history of the name, both in a person’s family, and also its Biblical or folklorical meaning. My name can be variously told as Penelope, the faithful wife, or the patient wife, or Penelope the weaver. I have rewritten that original myth in my own life, so I have not been home waiting for my husband to return. Rather I have been out on my own voyages. I still love this name, its elegant quiet and resilient strength. And Ariadne? Her name means either “beloved of the gods” or “she who holds the thread of life”. Not bad.
I work in the Los Angeles City Jail, providing inmates of all or no faith traditions with meditation training. When I go to the jail and am working with a new group of men, I have to get their names and booking numbers, so that the next time I come, I can have the guards call out their names to meet with the Buddhist chaplain. The habit of most men is to stick out their arm and show me their bracelet with their booking number, so I can write it down. Because even with glasses, I cannot read the number easily, I ask them to spell their name for me and to give me their number. Usually they just say their last name. I always ask for their first name. Often they give me a nickname, or a street label or initials. So I ask again, “What is your full first name?” Sometimes they mumble it, somewhat embarrassed. “But no one ever calls me that.” If I follow this up with “What would you like me to call you?” they will usually say the nickname.
One of the non violent sex offenders in the group I work with joined us after we had been meeting for several months. He is a tall, strongly built man in his thirties, who is missing four front top teeth. When I asked for his information, he too showed me his bracelet. “Read me the numbers,” I said, “and what is your name?” He said his last name. “And your first name?” “Chris,” he said in a low voice. “Is your full name Christopher?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, “but nobody calls me that.” I asked, “Would it be okay if I called you Christopher? It’s one of my favorite names.” “Yeah, I guess,” he said. And I have now, for three years.
He told me somewhere along the line that his family had been Christian, although he described them as not really practicing in any way. Since he had been incarcerated, they had broken off all contact with him. One day I asked him, “Christopher, do you know the meaning of your name?” He did not. I said “It means the Bearer of Christ. Some early Christians meant by that, to carry or bear Christ in one’s heart. There was also a story that St. Christopher carried or bore Jesus across a river. He is also the patron saint of travelers.” He got embarrassed, so I stopped. But he smiled.
Christopher had a complicated court case and kept getting sentenced and then having other legal issues come up. Because sometimes people can be sentenced and then sent to prison within a day or two, I kept saying goodbye to him, in the face of this uncertainty. At our last meeting, he thanked me and said, “I kinda feel like you gave me my name. No one in my whole life ever called me my true name. When you did, it felt like you saw me, really saw me as a person. But it’s my name, my name. Now I tell all the guys here, ‘just call me Christopher’.”