I have been musing lately on the subject of names.

It started when DS told me one morning that he had recognised a comet from its picture. That’s right, he’d seen a picture of an unlabelled comet and knew its name. I was so impressed! (Not impressed enough to find out what the name was but, hey, impressed.) This was my son, a man who knows comets by name!

(‘Mum, I know the name of one comet. Not all the comets.’)

It got me thinking. Do comets have names before humans label them?

If you know the seven-day creation story in the bible you will know that it was man who gave names to the animals. God made the animals but he gave man the job of assigning names. And we – humans – love giving names to things – kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. It’s a big deal.

This week at the university I had two days of lab sessions with my summer school students. We all got together in the chemistry lab and we played with various chemicals and reactions. It’s a full-on, but very productive couple of days. One of the fun things about these days from my point of view is the chance to meet people that I have known all summer as a name, and see what they are really like.

One of my students has the name Thelma, but she goes by Pixie. Another is named Tiffany, but called TJ. That got me thinking as well. You see, for most people, they are given a name at birth. That is, before anyone knows anything about them, they are given the name that they have to live with all their lives. My kids’ names were chosen well before they were even conceived. (We’re so glad we only had a daughter and a son, we didn’t have any more names chosen.)

So the name you are given by your parents has nothing to do with your personality, your likes or dislikes, your educational status, your wealth, nothing. And yet, we judge people by their name. Somehow we assume that the name someone has been given will have something to do with who they are.

There are studies showing that (in the sciences at least) a decision on a resume with a female name will be different to the decision on the exact same resume given with a male name. That if a name on a  resume is spelled interestingly Raychelle, for example, rather than Rachel, then the resume again will be treated differently. But it’s not poor Raychelle’s fault that her parents named her with the interesting spelling. And they probably did it with her best interests at heart.

I realised that I would have thought very differently about Pixie all semester if I had only known her as Thelma. That old-fashioned name gives a very different picture.

It says in the good book that God knows us by name. But which name?

I learned in last week’s sermon that Jesus gave Simon the nickname Petros (meaning little rock, pebble) but then he talked about him being Petra – a massive great boulder that he would build his church on. Jesus knew the whole of Simon Peter – the beginning of his life as the rowdy Simon who kept getting it wrong, but he also knew the Peter who would give the sermon that started the whole Christian church, and he knew that God would continue to build that church until now ~2000 years later.

DS suggested to me that God knows each of us by our Entish name. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, there are Ents – walking trees. And the name that Ents give is not just a label, but the whole life story of the tree. The names can be very long, very very long – trees live a long time.

God isn’t worried by time. He is eternal. He lives outside of time. And I like to think that when he says he knows me, or an animal, or a comet for that matter, by name, he is talking about the Entish name. The whole life story.

Now, I happen to love the name I was given at birth, and I find it very interesting that a nickname has never stuck to me – I have always been Ruth. And Ruth means beloved, which is a lovely short name to have. But I feel very beloved when I think that God knows my whole name, and loves me anyway.

Let’s be aware of our unconscious bias and try not to judge anyone by their name or label.

And be encouraged – God knows you by name.

Take the time

I know that much has been said on this subject before, but to be honest, I have a gripe and I want to let it out.

I went to the supermarket the other day and the check-out chick (sorry, the register operator?) was a nice enough girl, she was trying to do the right thing I’m sure, but she wasn’t. She was asking all the right questions, but she wasn’t listening to my answers.

‘How has your day been?’ she asked. And I started to tell her. I had quite a funny story to tell, that would have made her day, brightened her afternoon. I wanted to tell her that I’d gone into work, despite it being a public holiday, and I’d given an online tutorial. And all the way through the tutorial I’d said things like ‘for those watching the recording…’ or ‘I’ll go through this quickly, it will be on the recording’ and right at the end of the hour, I realised as I said goodbye to the students, that I hadn’t pressed record. There was no recording.

As I started to tell my highly amusing (ok, mildly amusing) anecdote, I looked at the girl, her eyes had glazed over. She was no longer listening. I think I stopped talking after telling her I’d gone into work.

So we were quiet, and she tried again.

‘Doing anything special for Australia Day?’

Now I had all sorts of interesting things to say about that. I could have discussed the conversation that was happening among my Facebook friends about whether there was a reason to celebrate Australia Day or not. I could have talked about the fact that we’d just come back from Adelaide a couple of days before and how the public holiday meant that I only had a two-day work week. But once again, she wasn’t listening. I gave up. I am not that much a fan of my own voice.

I don’t mind quiet at the register. I think I would have preferred quietness over this almost conversation.

She brightened up a bit when the supervisor told her she could close the register. I asked ‘is that it for you?’ ‘No,’ she said ‘I’m going until 530pm’ it was the most conversation we’d had. We were almost connecting there for a minute.

I had the same thing happen at a conference once. The professor had asked a question at the end of a presentation, and it pertained to my field of research. Stupidly, I thought he’d asked the question because he wanted to know the answer, so I sought him out in the break to further elucidate the quick answer that had been given by the student giving the presentation. But he didn’t want to know. He shared in-jokes with the man standing with us, rather than listen to what I had to say.

I must admit, I like being heard, and like most people, I hate being overlooked. And so I am as guilty of not listening as the next person. I usually want to be listened to, not to take the time to listen to others.

I think that listening, truly listening, is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another. Listening to understand – not listening to build our own argument, or rehearsing our own story while waiting for a chance to get a word in, or making conversation on automatic. Everybody has a story to tell, and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find when you take the time to listen.

Behind the scenes

In this novel that I am writing, one of the main characters owns and runs a cafe. I didn’t think she was going to be that important when I started but now that I am getting to know the characters better I find that she is pretty essential to my main character’s well-being, to the plot, to the whole thing, really! She might even be more important than the murder in my murder mystery. She’s a great person – I hope you love her when you finally get to read the book.

Anyway, DH suggested that maybe if I’m going to write about owning and running a cafe, I should learn something about the process. Just to make sure I wasn’t making any mistakes. I thought that was sensible advice so I took it. We have an friend that we know through church who used to own a cafe and I asked her if she would mind having a chat so that I could learn what it was like. She was very accommodating (I find that people generally like helping me out with this book thing, although it might just be that I have awesome and generous friends.) and we met today for coffee and a chat.

You know what? I found out that I know nothing at all about running a cafe! I hadn’t thought about rosters, about debtors and creditors, and ordering in food. I hadn’t thought at all about having cooks working in the kitchen – heaven’s knows where I thought the food would come from! Perhaps I thought it just cooked itself! I hadn’t thought about much beyond what you see as a customer in the cafe and there is so much going on behind the scenes.

She told me a story about a lady who came into her cafe with her daughter. My friend asked the daughter what she would like to be when she grew up. The little girl said that she would like to work in a cafe. Her mother said, ‘well, I think you’re too smart for that!’ Apart from that being terribly insulting to my friend, the other thing is that this woman really didn’t understand the layers of complexity involved in running one’s own business. The health and safety regulations, the superannuation, the budgeting. There is so much involved and so much brain required.

It’s like that for many of the businesses we see – we only see the smooth sailing of the duck on the top of the water – we don’t see the paddling like crazy that happens underneath. We often don’t appreciate the amount of work that is going into giving us a reasonable customer experience.

And as we talked I realised that I knew nothing at all about what was going on behind the scenes in my friend’s life. I didn’t know (until today) anything about her struggles, her family, her ups and downs. All I knew was that she was a stylish, friendly and generous lady. I knew the smile, but I didn’t know the pain behind it. I would never have got to know without taking the time to have coffee and a chat but I’m so glad I took the time. Now this woman is one of my heroes. She has gone through so much and come up smiling and she deserves so much respect for that.

There’s a saying that the most complex fictional character is less complex than the simplest of real people. Each one of us have lives that may look simple on the surface but are so much more complex underneath. Each of us has our own battles to face, our own struggles to learn through, our own difficult people to work with.

I guess I’ve just been reminded today that I can only see the surface and that you can’t judge by the surface. We don’t really have a clue what’s going on underneath and we might just be horrified if we did. Maybe we should treat each other with grace, kindness and respect at all times, just in case!