In a classic episode of Spongebob Squarepants–a show that has been very important to my development as a human being–Spongebob and his best friend, Patrick, compete against each other in the most important sporting event of their lives: the Fry Cook Games. It is a fierce competition, despite the fact that we know that in his free time, Patrick vacuums entire plates of cookies up with his mouth. But things get personal. At one point, Spongebob whips out a pencil and, with intense concentration, erases the “Pat” of “Patrick” on his friend’s name tag (which has been literally sewed to the latter’s skin). This really gets to Patrick, and in a fit of passion, he screams, “MY NAME’S. NOT. RICK!”
We give a lot of importance to our names. In a lot of ways, they define who we are. We feel recognized, important, and perhaps understood when someone remembers our name. And it’s not just personal names, either, that are important. We care about the words people use to describe us–our ethnicity, our race, our religion, and lots more. By giving something a name, we assume a sort of power over it, and the way we relate to that name reflects the way we relate to the person whom it describes. If, for example, you are a Native American and find that “Native American” is the term that best represents your identity, it would be disrespectful of someone else to call you an Indian. A lack of respect for what someone wishes to be called indicates a lack of respect for that person’s identity, and that has huge implications for how people relate on an interpersonal or even rhetorical level. As a person who cares about words and about justice, names and naming are important to me.
A few weeks ago, before Mass, my spiritual director (who is an excellent musician) came up to the choir loft and asked, cheerfully and humbly, if he could sing with us. The choir director said that he could, and so he began to make his way to a seat. He saw some of the singers and said hello to them, and then he saw me, and said, “Hi, Rebecca.”
This is not an uncommon thing that happens to me. All through college, I was called Christine and Emily, the names of two of my white, female, brown-haired friends with glasses. Often, people forget they have met me or think they have met me before when we are complete strangers. My friends and coworkers will tell me–often–that they saw someone who looks just like me. Once, I worked for a professor whom I met with every week, and when I became a student in her class, she asked if she knew me.
All this used to bother me. It made me feel not exactly unimportant, but redundant. I am a generic-looking white girl who apparently does not make much of an impression. In an entirely self-pitying way, I would sulk and brood about it internally.
When my spiritual director called me Rebecca, I thought I’d have that same reaction. And initially, I was upset. I had only met with this priest as my spiritual director once, but I’d met him on several other occasions during my three years in choir. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how good it was for me that he had forgotten my name.
One of my vices is pride, and it takes the particular form of wanting attention. Part of me hates attention, but another part really just wants someone to recognize that I am here and give me some sort of affirmation. But any sort of affirmation we get from other people is just that–worldly affirmation. I am no more validated as a human being because someone else has remembered me. On the other hand, my name does matter, but it is remembered in the way that matters most. God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
When someone forgets me or my name, God still remembers it. That is something I can always hold onto. At the same time, I can embrace the human forgetfulness as a way to help me rein in my pride. It forces me to reflect on the real reasons why I want to be remembered, to humble myself, and to remember, with awe, how small I am.
At the same time, I still think it is important to be conscientious about other people’s names. As part of a human family, I want to do all I can to create unity in that family, and unity is nurtured by respect. But this is a case in which I do not intend to hold it against anyone for forgetting me. It is rarely, if ever, done maliciously, and such a situation is best understood through mercy. The way to move forward is to focus on the actual substance of my relationship with other people–something I lose sight of far too easily.