What’s in a Name: The Importance of Naming

In several reflections, we have brought out the underlying theme of energy as flowing through all that is, in various kinds and forms. We have also noted that the underlying energy of the universe is love energy. Perhaps it may also be characterized as a longing, a kind of ache that fuels our life journey. We have suggested too that are words are not so much sounds in the air or markings on a page as the energy and the kind of energy that flows into them. We have also suggested that this energy is best expressed in storytelling, poetry and the many forms of art. Our underlying theme has been the intrinsic sacred worth of the person and of all that is, a worth that also encompasses the shadow side of reality. Involved in this whole process of life is what we might call the naming of experience.

So things that certainly call for further exploration are those of love and friendship with its counterpart of loneliness and solitude: the implicit theme of suffering contained in the contradictions of experience; and the whole aspect of getting in touch with and naming our experience, perhaps best through storytelling. I would like to talk a little about that theme this week.

I came across a quotation from Ursula Le Guin who was a renowned writer of science fiction, with a philosophical perspective. In an interview, she stated: “One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” She adds that the daily routine of work closes us off to much of the world, and “when we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.”

She notes that the language of politicians is empty and that much battle metaphors are shaping our language. I would add that the language of killing and of violence is pervasive as well. Le Guin adds: “We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. The one reflects the other.” In a similar vein, I recall a comment by Northrup Frye, University of Toronto literary critic, that the purpose of a well-rounded liberal education is freedom, by giving us enough words to think with. Rilke says as well that out of a myriad of experience lived through, assimilated, and even forgotten, might arise a single line of poetry. In essence what they seem to be saying is that literature and other arts are able to assist us in naming accurately and honestly our deepest experience, and thereby providing an avenue to that experience and to living it more truthfully and, I would add, compassionately

Once, after a class, an adult student came up and said that this class put into words what she always knew but wasn’t able to express. It was extremely gratifying to hear that the class helped her to name her own experience. I think that when we hear something that strikes us as true, it seems to be not so much the discovery of something new, but the recognition of something we somehow did know but were not aware of explicitly. The Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote that knowledge was remembering. Perhaps the underlying truth of what he said was along the same lines, a calling to mind of something already vaguely known, a naming of our experience that we recognize.

As an example, many years ago I heard an interview conducted with permission by a social worker with a patient who had suffered from what was commonly called multiple personality syndrome. When, as the small child, she approached speaking of the situation of abuse she suffered, she was placed in a large box in the garage. The voice of the child in the box was stammering and inarticulate. I recognized it as the voice of rage, and realized that rage is not predominately anger, but a cry of searing pain from profoundly within, a gut-wrenching protest against violation.

On another occasion, I had a profound sense of the sacred beauty of a person that was deeper than and somehow untouched by the wounds inflicted.

As a further example, I would like to give an interpretation of a familiar folk tale, Rumpelstiltzkin. In the story, a miller brags to a king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The greedy king summons her top his palace to perform this feat, and to do so under penalty of death. Straw and gold are similar only in colour, one given to lowly uses and readily discarded; the other regarded as of lasting value. In my interpretation, the challenge is to accept the life we have received, which seems brief and passing (straw), and fashion it into a lasting work of art (gold). Not to do so is to die inside rather than bring oneself fully to life. Yet the situation in which this challenge is faced is wounded or flawed, symbolized by the pretence and greed of the miller and king.

The dwarf comes to the rescue, but at a cost. She must give him her pearl necklace, her ring, and the promise of a future child. The dwarf stands for the inner resources upon which a person must draw upon and develop to make a work of art of their life. The pearls represent the many dimensions or possibilities of the person, while the ring suggests the need to unify or integrate them. One must become a whole person with many qualities that are integrated, rather than a one dimensional or scattered individual.

Yet there remains a final task, signified by the naming of the dwarf under penalty of loss of the child. The challenge is to struggle with the elements that can destroy one’s future. The child stands for the future which can be undermined by our destructive tendencies. The creative response is to name them, to come to terms with them, so to speak. If we are aware of this shadow side of ourselves, it can lose its hold on us as well as counter our tendency to project it on to others. This naming takes three days and all the resources of one’s kingdom. It is a lengthy and demanding task.

The completion of this process, which is never fully achieved in one’s lifetime, is to become a queen or king, which in these stories means to approach realizing one’s potential and sharing that with others. Again a sense of one’s own and others’ sacred worth, inclusive of our shadow side, is essential to a life that is fulfilling for self and others, and contributes to our world.

Certainly in reading such a story or in looking at other folk tales or mythologies, a person may not consciously think in this direction. At the same time, some of these archetypal images may work within us, as do our dreams. Yet there is also the question of the angle of vision that we bring to these and other stories. Our approach is the sacred worth of each person and all beings as the lens through which to look. When viewed through that lens, that angle, the interpretation of stories such as Rumpelstiltzkin may resonate within us. Surprisingly enough, the story itself contains an explicit affirmation of this understanding: “Something living is more precious than all the gold in the world.”

May your imagination continue to flourish, held and nourished in the arms of your sacred worth, and flow into ever greater compassion for yourself, and radiate outwardly in ever expanding circles.

Norman King
May 30, 2021