Having two first names is a bit tricky; having a last name as a prime target for mockery and teasing is something else again, but consistently being called by a wrong name is an odd experience.
What’s in a name? Dan Robert Dick. I actually have three first names, so the fact that there is some confusion (my dad’s name was Robert) makes some sense. Throughout my life, people have called me “Dick” instead of “Dan.” It would be easy to say that I am used to it, but at a couple levels this would be disingenuous. It does bother me, under certain circumstances.
First, it makes me feel somewhat invisible and unimportant. We KNOW the names of people we care about. We KNOW the names of those we value. If I am “Dick” to someone, it is clear that I am not that important to that person.
Second, it makes me feel disrespected. I am a strong believer in the power of names, and the importance and meaning of names. While I would like to be able to completely set my ego aside and say, “this doesn’t really matter,” I realize that it does. One example. I participated in a two year spiritual formation process where communion was served within the community. On three different occasions, leaders of the program as well as peer-participants solemnly looked my in the eye to say, “Dick, this is Christ’s body broken for you/Dick, this is Christ’s blood shed for you.” Should it matter?
As I get older, I feel more and more that it DOES matter. I try to dismiss it as a mistake, a lapse of memory, and mere confusion, but in a world where more and more people feel less and less cared for and cared about, names matter. Really seeing people, really knowing people, really honoring people is essential. We dismiss and demean people without meaning to by not taking the very simplest, very most basic, very easiest step of learning their name.
What triggered this is that I received an email today from someone I have known for over a dozen years, worked with for awhile, have communicated with over the years, and have been part of their community off and on for the past decade. I let her know I would need to attend to a funeral and miss the last day of a program and she responded, “Dear Dick, I understand.” Great. I am glad she understands that Dick has to be somewhere else. It would be great to think that she knows I need to be away as well.
My last name is a slang term for a part of the male anatomy, a private investigator, and a pompous ass – the first and last pointed out to me throughout my life. In grade school, middle school, and high school it felt fairly normal – I was simply the target of bullies and those basking in lower forms of humor. It got a little more weird in college, when my name seemed to give a certain class of males the right to physically abuse me as well, and then in adult life it became a bit surreal. I remember meeting with an older colleague of mine when I was in my thirties to prepare a program. he suggested we break for lunch, and as we got in the car, he stopped me and said across the hood of the car, “Hey! Did you know that your name means ‘penis?'” As a presenter for the national church, I would often be introduced to audiences of United Methodist adults who would break out in titters when my name was announced. That was actually easier to shrug off than those who get my name wrong. Being made fun of is less of a hurt than not being known or respected.
I guess my word for you from all of this is care enough. Our life is hard enough without being ignored, dismissed, demeaned, or disrespected. Even if it is an accident, don’t make excuses, be truly sorry. To speak a person’s name is to wield power – power to build up or power to tear down. Care enough to learn people’s names and use them with respect. Call people by name, but make sure you call them by the right name. My wife is Barbara, not Barb and certainly not “Babs.” She deserves to be called the name she chooses, the name given to her, and the name that affirms her identity. We won’t get it right every time, but when we do, it shows we care.
The people who mean the most to me get it right, and I am thankful for that. It bothers me that casual acquaintances get it wrong from time to time. When it hurts is when I have a good relationship with someone, someone I know and respect, and I realize the same level of knowing and respect isn’t reciprocated. So, be careful with names. They are precious and should not be taken lightly. It is a Golden Rule thing – care as much about the names of others as you hope they will care about yours.