I was headed into church one Sunday morning among the familiar faces of fellow parishioners. I spotted one such familiar face coming down the sidewalk and I called out a cheery greeting, “Good morning, John!” He waved and I hustled inside without another thought of it.
But after I sat for a moment, I began to have the uneasy feeling that somehow I had made a mistake. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the fellow I had greeted as John was not John at all. The service started, the hymn commenced, and I felt the hot blush of embarrassment engulf me as I realized that John was not John, but Jeff. I was distracted during the entire service, calculating how I would make sure to track Jeff down and let him know that I really did remember his name. As communicants walked to the front of the church later in the service, I noted where he must be sitting and as soon as the final hymn had been sung I nearly sprinted to him to acknowledge my sin and beg forgiveness. (It’s what one does at church!) Jeff laughed and waved off my apology, but I felt a lot better having admitted my error.
Even if only for a moment, such a lapse creates enormous discomfort for me, a reaction which always dwarfs that of the supposedly offended party. For a variety of reasons, I become absolutely mortified at the loss of a name! (Four years ago I forget the name of a college acquaintance whom I had not seen for 40 years, and I still haven’t shaken off the chagrin!) First off, it just seems like an enormous insult that I might not recall a name, that perhaps the individual had made little impression on me in the past, that I had not regarded him/her of significant enough merit to remember. Second, I really like most people whom I meet; not to recall their names feels to me as though my esteem must be phony. Third, and maybe more selfishly, forgetting a name seems to affirm a suspicion of my encroaching age, something to which I give no quarter willingly. I refuse to be too old to remember!
But at its deepest level, readily recalling someone’s name is an important validation of them, of their existence and importance in the world, that someone recognizes and acknowledges their being. And that is acknowledgement which all of us crave, whether admitted or not. We inhabit a planet teeming with activities, events and happenings at breakneck speed. In it, we all run the risk of unimportance, of anonymity, of not seeming to make a difference of any kind, whether for good or bad. In our brief stay on this earth, we all long to have made a mark. It’s why we love to etch our initials in drying cement.
In another way, recognition of the individual and his/her name is a form of connection, a bond, an accompaniment, that links us in our common humanity. I’m really quite unimportant, but you know me; you’re equally unimportant, but I know you. And so we hold each other, in a small way, by knowing each other’s name, some small token of immortality.
It’s the same psychology encountered when working with the poor. As important as financial resources are, the accompaniment is almost as necessary. In one case I was told, “What you have given to us is more than money.” It was an expression, I believe, of what it meant to really have someone else be with them in their lives, that we knew of them, that someone knew that they lived, that they struggled, that they were important to somebody. That their initials had been etched somewhere….
It turns out that what’s in a name is more than a linguistic label. It’s an honor that we bestow and an affirmation which goes way beyond the sound of it. I’ve got to work harder at remembering more names…