Name and identity
My spouse and I often spend a short while watching some kind of TV-show or a part of a movie in the evenings before going to bed. I say ‘part of a movie’ because, invariably, we end up starting the program late and not having the energy to stay up until the end. At the moment, we’re in the middle of a movie called “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” It’s about Australian aboriginal children – who happen to be the offspring of a white father and aboriginal mother – who are taken from their families in order to be enculturated in the western-European ways.
It seems to me that we find value in feeling ‘at home’ somewhere. Sometimes it’s a physical location; other times, it’s with certain people or participating in a certain occasion, and location has less to do with one’s comfort level. It has to do with positive association. And, if we can not feel comfortable and ‘at home,’ we have a hard time feeling whole. (In the film, the children try to get back home by running away from the school to which they had been taken.)
With children, it is so important to help them have a sense of self and to have a sense of place. I find that to be the case, more and more, as I grow into my role as a parent to a couple of dear children. And the names and words we use to describe and call our children form their identity – for better or worse. The old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is not true. Just ask the young woman who was taken from her home by her mother and raised under another name. Or ask the child who was named after a terrible dictator, and who was taken by child social services because of his name.
In the case of children who were once taken from their families, and then told that what they had learned (eg. the language and culture of their parents) was wrong, just imagine the awful feelings that would go with that. Sadly, that is the case with many who have grown up in such places as residential schools (whether in Australia, or Canada, or elsewhere).
We continue to struggle with matters of identity and naming when we expect that there be an English-version of someone’s name. A poster hangs on the wall in my house, “How to Build Global Community.” It has many suggestions for building global community, a couple of which are, “listen to music you don’t understand – dance to it” and “learn a second (or third) language.” When I was in high school, I remember a poster on my Japanese language teacher’s wall: “monolingualism can be cured.”
The words we use, and the images they conjure in each of our minds, affect our individual ability to feel whole. It seems odd – how could words and images hold so much power? – but it penetrates to the core of our being. We attach meaning to those words and images, based on the experiences that they recall for each of us.
In the story of Jesus’ birth, there are names that are ascribed to him: “Jesus” (“one who saves”) and “Immanuel” (“God among us”). In the story of every baptized person, we connect ourselves to the story of Jesus – we name ourselves “Christian” as a follower of the way of Jesus.
Don’t underestimate the power of language and words. And use the images for good – to build a framework for each person to see how we are connected, how we are all worthy of respect and love, and how we are all to engage in just living.