Recently I heard an interview with the author, Elif Shafak about her novel, “10 minutes and 38 seconds In This Strange World.” The title is how long the main character, who has been murdered, has to reflect on her life. The author had heard that it takes that long, 10 minutes and 38 seconds after the heart stops for the mind to stop thinking.
The novel becomes a telling of the main character’s story as she reflects on her life: her life is one of the forgotten. The author uses the Cemetery of Companionless in Istanbul, Turkey as inspiration. Apparently the cemetery is the final resting place for people with no name, no history or no “societal significance”. The buried receive just a number.
While it is a fictional story, the fact that there is an actual place for the buried nameless seems so sad. How awful to think that a person containing an entire life: loves, losses, ideas, etc., is reduced to just a number and no name.
It also made me think of the conversation that Imani Perry had with Krista Tippett on a recent On Being broadcast. Ms. Perry has written a book, “Breathe” which began as a letter to her two sons but really is for all black children and how to negotiate growing up. In the interview she recounts a story of racism that her one son encountered during preschool. A listener asks Ms. Perry in light of that encounter, what could’ve been done differently. Ms. Perry says, it starts with just saying hi and getting to know one’s name.
Knowing people’s names. Such a valid endeavor- to acknowledge what someone is called and to recognize someone’s worth in order to recognize the God in each one of us. After all, our purpose on this earth was to name and care for all that was created, even ourselves. In all cultures and all religions, names are important.
My Tuesday Women’s Bible Study has been studying the Biblical patriarchs. Interestingly that in the complex story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar, neither Abram or Sarai called Hagar by her name. They refer to her as their servant: she is known for what she does and not who she is. They have reduced her to being an heir surrogate and nothing more.
Do we do that to others? Do we assume we know who they are by what they do? Even the most “well-known” individuals (doesn’t that expression imply that a person is known even by complete strangers?) complain that they are not the people who others think they are.
In some ways, the ancient attitude of Abram and Sarai would go well in today’s society. One of the first things people seem to ask one another, “What do you do?” Almost before learning a name and certainly before learning about the character or personality of a person. I know that when I was a stay-at-home mom, I encountered many people who, once learning that my “job” was staying home, would move on to speak to someone else. They would barely ask my name and most certainly didn’t get to know me. It was as if I had either a contagious disease or immediately determined that I was totally not interesting.
Names. Knowing one’s name. It means so much more than what one does. In ancient times, names represented or foreshadowed a personality characteristic. It does so today. If you don’t think so, what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the name, Adolf? Machiavelli? George? Ringo? Paul? John? Martha? Add someone’s last name and one can really identify the characteristics and personalities. And this is just the name. Imagine if we take the time to get to know the person behind the name?
I have a confession to make: I am terrible at remembering names. With initial encounters of people, I can remember pretty much everything a person has told me about themselves, even down to the details of where each one of us stood, clothing worn and expressions used. But what their name is, I blank. I am especially poor at it if there is no other context in which to associate the name.
I am trying to make more of a concerted effort in remembering people’s names. Even remembering character names from stories. Partly I have trouble with pronunciations. If I cannot pronounce the name, I cannot remember it. Not that I am excusing myself, but I do find that some of the more foreign sounding names or interpretive ones, I have such trouble remembering. But it is so disrespectful not to call someone by their name.
What about you? How are you with names? Remember them? How do you remember them? Do you interject a person’s name in the middle of conversations, “So, Mary, what did you think of the play?” Do you name associate? (I am always a little leery with that technique. I think I have shared this story before: My dad had a co-worker with a last name Longacre. He once was introduced as Mr. Shortmeadow.)
What do you remember about people? Their personality? Their names? Their profession? Or are people just a nameless face?
It makes me think of Hamlet’s line, “to be or not to be…” Shakespeare didn’t say, “to do or not to do…” Our being is tied up in our names. We need to honor the “be” of others. What better way than to start by remembering names.