Last summer I had the privilege of driving through Jasper National Park, which features the spectacular peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Interestingly, one of the more striking features I observed while driving was the many wooden signposts alongside the road; they were pointing to each of the peaks from the highway, naming the mountaintops. Mount Robson, Fitzwilliam, Roche Noir, Pyramid, and Roche Miette were some of the towers I travelled by. This observation sparked a personal reflection into the human tendency to name. Why is it that these mountains have been given an identity? Who decided what they should be called? What does this reflect about humankind?
This inclination is something I have observed in the medical field as well. Besides having to learn countless terms in my studies – names of diseases, medications and anatomy – I have noticed that having a diagnosis is quite significant for patients. Individuals gain a sense of satisfaction and acceptance in the simple naming of their ailments. Ann Voskamp describes this phenomenon in her book One Thousand Gifts, which is a reflection of her journey to record one thousand moments and objects of delight in a practice of gratitude. Voskamp shares the story of her husband scouring the Internet regarding a sickness affecting their pig litters. Even though it meant a grim prognosis, he found relief in knowing the name. He said, “Just naming it … just naming it. When you don’t have the name for something, you’re haunted by shadows.”
What’s in a Name?
Names serve many purposes, one of which is to communicate and identify. When I say to my colleagues in medicine that this knee-injured patient has a negative Lachman test and therefore the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) is intact, I am using these terms to relay specific information. These names make up the jargon for medical communication. Many other expertise and professions also require their own terminology to relay facts.
Names also commemorate. The Lachman test was named after John Lachman, the orthopedic surgeon who first described the maneuver. Another example from my journey through Jasper is Mount Edith Cavell; this peak’s name celebrates a World War I heroine. When we name objects, we use those names to organize and categorize, distinguish and identify, imply and signify. Names are useful, but they are so much more enlightening than that.
Naming in Eden
In the Biblical text of Genesis 2, the Creator of all things brings livestock, birds and beasts to the first man, Adam, to be named. Verse 19 reads, “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” Now, whether you accept this passage from the Garden of Eden as literal history, part of the Judeo-Christian Scriptural canon, or simply a fanciful literary myth – there is an element of human nature exemplified and ordained as a historical precedence. As shown by this invitation from God to Adam, humankind is purposed to give names and join in the creative process — to truly know creation by naming it.
Voskamp highlights this account from Genesis in One Thousand Gifts as follows:
“The first man’s first task is to name. Adam completes creation with his Maker through the act of naming creatures, releasing the land from chaos, from the teeming, indefinable mass. I am seeing it too… name offers the gift of recognition. When I name moments … I am Adam and I discover my meaning and God’s, and to name is to learn the language of Paradise.”
It’s this gift of recognition that her husband experienced in learning the disease devastating his livestock, but it’s also the same gift that I enjoyed while driving through Jasper National Park. It’s the gift you relish when perusing a restaurant menu, or browsing ModCloth’s online frock selection. It’s the way we associate characteristics to the names of childhood frenemies, and the reason we entitle personal history as ‘the best day of my life’.
Recognition literally means to know again. This divine invitation to name the animals, the parts of our body, or the surrounding mountaintops, is an invitation to relish in creation and know it deeper, to know purpose deeper. Voskamp expounds, “Naming is to know a thing’s function in the cosmos – to name is to solve mystery.” This gift of recognition – the invitation to name – has been given to us so that we may take pause, be creative, and know life more deeply.
How has the act of naming objects or moments been significant in your experience?
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