Monday, April 20, 2009

What's in a name?

I've lately noticed an interesting trend: several people I know have asked to be called something different. Often those new names are comprised of nouns, and sometimes adjective-noun combinations, that aren't, shall we say, generally aligned with traditional naming practices.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. So, being an open-minded and polite sort, I have endeavored to acknowledge and adhere to their requested new self-monikers, while at the same time working to stifle any snickers that might try to burp up unbidden.

The funny thing is, even though I can't seem to help smirking, I don't really think people giving themselves new names is funny. Or bad. In fact, in a theoretical way I fully support, and even embrace, the concept. Yet when it actually occurs, when someone I've known and engaged with for a long time under one name suddenly, willingly, deliberately decides to change their name to some plant or animal or celestial event, well, I still can't help but find it somewhat ... peculiar.

But, I get it. Totally. And I am self-aware enough to recognize that my upwellings of cynicism arise not from what I feel, but from what I think -- those reflexive responses conditioned by our social and cultural upbringings. Because in our culture, this is obviously a different process from the accepted ways we usually get our names:

1. Birth, given by parents and family lineage.
2. Nickname, given by others.
3. Marriage, last name only.
4. Earned and bestowed honorific.

Beyond that, cultural conditioning teaches us to distrust and resist self-imposed re-identifying of ourselves.

Of course, despite these norms and conventions, renaming ourselves is actually quite normal and common -- if we define "normal" as including full variety of human culture, and see what is "common" across the full multi-million-year historic range of human society and culture. In those terms, there's strong evidence that what is "normal" for people -- what transcends our present-day accepted acculturation, and instead arises from our very source, our being, our human being -- is something quite different.

In that broader context we can see that the act of finding and adopting new self-chosen names, often several times in the course of one's life, is actually normal, expected, anticipated, sought out and celebrated.

Yet while this might be common and consistent among tribal peoples worldwide, we think that a singer changing her name to "Pink" is somehow silly and juvenile, different from a Native warrior who has a pwerful vision and so changes his name to "Crazy Horse."

But is it, really, that different?

And we still do it, anyways, don't we? In the business world, it's called "Rebranding." The idea is, essentially, if you rename it, they will come around -- around to seeing your product in a new way, they way you want it to be seen. Think of "Gatorade" now just becoming "G."

Another interesting and new place where people are now renaming and reinventing themselves themselves is online -- emails, discussion groups, chat rooms, social networking sites. And, importantly, and more pervasively, in online gaming, where a participant can create a whole new persona, from name to completely new identity, personal history, and personal story -- a completely new who-you-are. These new identities are called "Avatars," and they can represent, I believe, not just a fantasy, or even an escape, but one of our deepest and most natural human desires: To start over. To be re-invented. To look ahead to believe who we can be, not just who we have been.

And it all begins with our name.

The point being -- it's something many of us want to do. And I think it's something that would be good for most, if not all, of us in our ongoing personal development. Because when you think about it, being stuck with only one name throughout your entire life really only benefits bureaucracy and organizations and those who want you to be permanently attached to your past and your assigned designations. And the result is just that: We are anchored to our past instead of liberated to move to new ways of being.

Seen that way, then, name changing is a sort of spiritual rebranding, with the purpose of recasting ourselves not as histories, but as fresh stories -- from who-we-were to avatar. A new name drops the old storehouse of history and past, and instead works as a compass bearing, a guide, a reference point. It becomes an intention.The idea is, if you rename it, you yourself will come around -- you will live up to that, work toward that, make it so ...

Well, I've been thinking about this since my recent encounters with my friends-formerly-known-as-whatever, and although I can't yet bring myself to rename myself (What would it be? "MoneyMaker"? That would be a welcome change, for sure. "Pulitzer"? It'd take more than a name ... "UpWright," on the other hand, might help my boating ... ), I do see some places where some renaming-towards-revisioning some things might be a real asset right here in our American West. Here are a few ideas:
  • "Public Lands" could be renamed "Grandkids Lands."
  • "Recreation" could be phrased "re-creation."
  • The term "lake" could be applied only to acts of God rather than acts of engineers.
  • "Wilderness" could be called "Homelands" (retrieving the name from the agency of that name), and urban/suburban blights could be labeled "wilderness" -- then we could get back to taming the "wilds" and forging them back into "homelands" again.
Well, it's only a thought. Only a start.

How about you? What would you like to rebrand, and why?

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This post also appears on InsideOutsideMag.com. Check it out!

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