Post 39

Hey Salamander!
Reflections on Adjectives and Other Types of Name-Calling

So I’ve now named 18 people while blogging.  As you know, I name my friends and relatives using adjectives.

I know that’s a little bit unusual.

The most normal method, if you don’t want to call everybody the same thing (“my friend”), is to hand out fictitious names.  You can use an asterisk too, if you want to do it the way the magazines do: Jane* or Liz* or Joe*.   Upon seeing the *, the eye of the reader will reflexively dart to the bottom of the article.

At least, that’s what happens to me.

Now you would think that, by now, I would stop being intrigued by the *.  But you can call me Charlie Brown – that little asterisk is Lucy’s football, and I always fall for it.

It makes no sense, I know.  What exactly am I expecting to see, after all?  Is the name-swappity thing so extraordinary and novel to me that I don’t know what it’s going to say when I get there?

Perhaps subconsciously I think it’s going to explain something very special about Jane, in fine print – you know, like some kind of top-secret privileged information, a reward for keeners.  So I go on a little treasure hunt, and of course I find this: “Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.”  Of course.  Of course.  I knew that.  I knew it was going to say that.  “But if you knew that it was going to say that, then why did you go and check?”  I don’t know.  I guess I thought – I guess I thought that it might say something different, this time.  You never know.  It could happen.   And consider: what if the one time I didn’t check it, it said something exciting, like: “Names have not been changed, for the sake of reality.”  Then I would miss a really sensational moment.

So anyway, I didn’t want to go the Jane* route.

Mind you, that method could be rather fun if you were to let your friends choose their own names.  We could all play pretend.  Who are you going to be?   One of my friends already has a favourite fake name.  I did not know this.  I told her that I had given her a name for the purposes of my blog and she said, “Ooh, what did you name me?  Did you call me Veronica?  I really like the name Veronica.  Is that what you named me?  I was even thinking of changing my name to Veronica.  How about that?  So is that what you picked?”

She was really excited about being Veronica.

So I had to admit, rather sheepishly, that, well, no, I didn’t actually think of using the name Veronica.

“Oh” she said.  She would have liked to be called Veronica.

So I thought that I should let you know that if you see a reference to SpiritedOne, it’s actually Veronica.  Or to be more exact, it’s someone who would like to be called Veronica.   I’ll write it like this to remind you: SpiritedOne*.  (Am I supposed to put the period before the asterisk or after? The consensus seems to be for after, so I should say, SpiritedOne.* Yeah, maybe that looks better.)

I think it might be kind of fun to choose our own fake names.  I think I might choose Naomi, kind of a rearrangement of my own name, but more common and therefore more convenient.  On the other hand, perhaps I should choose a saint’s name.  What do you think of Maria?  Can you see me as a Maria?

(As I type this, I remember that SpiritedOne* has already given me a name.  When I told her I don’t own a cell phone, she said, “What are you?  Some kind of Luddite?  They used to burn people like you, you know.”  As a matter of fact, I did not know this.  I did not know they used to burn people who didn’t have cell phones.  I wonder if they’d burn you if you had just a flip-phone.  Maybe not.  Maybe they’d just singe you a little and let you go.   So you can call me Luddite.  Or, to make it cuter, how about LittleLuddite?  Or you could go even cuter: LiddleLuddite.  Then when it finally catches on, I’ll go and wow you by setting myself up with an iPhone62 or whatever it is by then.)

There are, of course, a few disadvantages to this choose-your-own-alias method of naming.  In the first place, maybe my friends wouldn’t want to play along.  I can hardly imagine EfficientOne thinking that this is a good use of his time.   As a matter of fact, I wonder if men spend any time at all in thinking about what they’d rename themselves if given a chance.  When little boys play Let’s Destroy the Universe or whatever, do they usually rename themselves, or do they just get down to work?  Maybe men do think of such things more than it would appear.  CandidOne’s husband says he wishes he got the full version of his own name, and not just the nickname.  So perhaps they do have thoughts on the issue, and they just don’t openly discuss it, the way SpiritedOne* and other women do.  Hmm.  I should go around asking.  Maybe they would all name themselves “Bond, James Bond.”   Or maybe Thor.   I bet Chesterton thought about it, being all literary, and having to name all of his characters.

But anyway, the second disadvantage with asking people to come up with a fictitious name for themselves is that they’d say, “Why do you ask?”  I’d say, “Oh, nothing really, I just want to talk about you on the internet, that’s all.”

I also considered naming my friends after animals.  Yes, I really did.  I tell you no lies.  It’s not as far-fetched as it initially sounds – can’t you imagine naming certain people after certain animals?  It’s a rather fun mental exercise.  You’ll think of a certain friend and then after some minutes of solid thinking, the appropriate animal will pop into your head.  You might even laugh out loud because it will be so incredibly right.  And when the fit is just perfect, you can get on the phone and say, “Hey, I just figured out that you are TOTALLY a kangaroo!”

It’s something that a person could conceivably do, you know, if that person didn’t mind losing all of her friends, sort of one-by-one.  “Strange.  Ever since I referred to her as a Parakeet, she’s been rather distant.”

And then there’s the big problem that there’s quite an imbalance.  You can get away with calling men lots of animal types, and they won’t be offended at all.  Just pick some largish mammal and they’ll be good with it: tiger, lion, bear (but not panda or koala), and you can even consider the reptiles: gecko, tortoise and so on.  But when it comes to women, the choices are extremely limited.  There are a few acceptable birds (dove, swan, sparrow) but I can’t think of many other animals which would go over well.  Even when you consider the same species, nothing works.   A man is okay as a bull, but a woman is not okay as a cow.  A man is okay as a rooster, but a woman is not okay as a chicken.  Rather limiting.

So I moved on.

I began considering my friends in terms of their personality, or, to be more specific, their good points or virtues.  With every person, there would be a few virtues that stood out, for me, more prominently than others.  And so it seemed like it could work.  It seemed like there would be enough adjectives to choose from.

And to explain why it was someone’s Virtue A, and not their Virtue B (because of course, they have multiple, as I’ll get into later) which stood out for me, I have to mention that ‘feeling-opposite’ effect.

Let me explain, and then you can tell me if it happens to you.  When you interact with different people, don’t you find that you often feel the opposite of a characteristic that you perceive in them?  For example, if you are with someone really tall (I know someone who is 6’8”) don’t you suddenly feel really short?  If you’re with someone really short, don’t you suddenly feel like a giant?

No?  Okay, well, then never mind.

I find it across the board, not just with physical traits.  If I’m with someone really talkative, I feel like a quiet person.  When I’m with someone really quiet, I feel like a blabber-mouth.   And I find it applies with emotional things: there’s nothing like being with an over-wrought person to make me feel like the picture of composure, and when I’m with someone who is extremely even-keeled, I feel almost hysterical.

And it applies to spiritual traits too.

When we are up close and personal with someone who is really holy, we become more conscious of how we are not.

Perhaps it partly explains St. Peter’s reaction when Jesus surprised him with all those fish, “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

And with the other saints, it’s strange to read what they’ve written, because they’re so conscious of their sinfulness, and yet they were so good!  An ordinary reader of a saint’s writing is bound to think, “Don’t be so hard on yourself!  After all, I know I’m swell and you’re way better than me!”  For a long time, I couldn’t understand the paradox.  Why were all these really nice people thinking that they were so unworthy and so sinful?  But then I came across some good explanations and analogies.  Usually the idea of glass or crystal is used.   The idea is that the closer you are to Christ, and his light, the better you can see your own failings and imperfections.  One priest compared it to a windshield on a car; in the dark, the glass looks pretty good (TenaciousOne said: “Everybody looks great in dim lighting from a few feet away”), but in the bright sunlight, you can see the truth of all the flaws.

But it’s not as depressing as it sounds; the saints are quite content to see themselves as insufficient and incomplete in and of themselves.  They’re truly humble, so this doesn’t cause them any dismay. They know Christ accepts their good intentions and efforts, and his mercy towards them is a source of relief, gratitude and joy.  St. Therese of Lisieux said she had gotten to the point where she was pleased to find fresh faults within herself.

The idea here is that the saints are really, really close to Christ, and so they see themselves as they really are.  We’re not as close, so we can cruise for a good long time, rather smug with our own sanctity or with our own okayness.  I’m okay and you’re okay.  He’s okay and she’s okay.   (Is okay another word for lukewarm?)

But anyway, my experience is that when we’re around someone, it’s often the differences that we notice most quickly – the differences between who they are and who we are, not only physically, but also mentally, psychologically, and spiritually.

So part of my own naming process reflects this; the adjectives I use contain within them the effects of this ‘feeling-opposite.’  CharitableOne seems to really know how to be charitable, whether that comes naturally to her or whether it’s something that she values so highly that she’s become really good at it.  I want to be more similar to her in this way.

And just for the record, I must say that when I say this, I’m not trying to insult myself or to (in a display of humility) talk as if I’m insulting myself.

I’m just mentioning it because I think we all have that effect on each other.  People are so different, and they get good at different virtues at different rates, and so we perceive virtues and positive attributes in each other especially when they seem to have it figured out and know how to live it better than we do right now.

We learn from each other.

And this is good.  Indeed, it’s wonderful to learn from each other, to see certain good traits and virtues being put into practice in real-life contexts. We can emulate these behaviours.  I’m happy to celebrate these adjectives and the people in whom I see them embodied.

Having said that, there’s an obvious problem with all of this, and that is that a one-word summary of a person is obviously entirely and terribly incomplete, even if it’s a nice word.

After all, virtues come in clusters – or so it seems to me.

What about you?  Don’t you find that when you find one good trait in a person, it’s usually a sign that there are a whole bunch of other good traits nearby?  That biblical idea of the good tree yielding good fruit strikes me as exactly right.   The expression, ‘there’s more where that came from,’ is another way to put it.

When you discover that someone is a really diligent student or worker, it’s not really surprising to find out that they’re also honest and loyal and so on as well.  When you see someone being conscientious about little things, you can quite safely predict that they’ll be conscientious about big things too.  That’s also biblical.

(And of course it goes the other way too.   When you find someone who harbours resentment, encourages gossip, laughs at the misfortune of others, or acts as if dishonesty is the same as cleverness, then it’s not only a problem in itself, it’s also a ‘red flag’ signalling other serious blindness or malice.)

But anyway, since good qualities do cluster together, it’s really difficult to boil people down to one adjective.  I suddenly realized how similar my friends were to each other!  Kind, friendly, patient, polite, honest, sincere, considerate, thoughtful, tactful – such things are the norm among my friends, because I choose my friends based on my admiration for them.

My friends also share something else which I was initially going to call ‘moral intelligence.’  I say ‘initially’ because I’ve since decided that a better phrase would be ‘moral muscle’ because good behaviour, and knowledge about good behaviour, increases and improves with use, and atrophies with disuse.   It’s not a static thing.  Someone who has a habit of exercising good judgment or self-restraint, for example, becomes good at these things.  Conversely, someone who begins cutting corners, taking the easy way out and generally ignoring his conscience will gradually become more and more hazy about where the boundaries are in the first place.  His moral muscles will begin to atrophy, and he won’t be able to achieve even his previous level of good behaviour.  Something which would have been unthinkable a few months ago feels, today, kind of ‘daring’ or ‘honest’ or ‘not-as-bad-as-what-so-and-so-did.’

So it is difficult to choose one virtue among many.  I bet that if you were to try to name your friends’ virtues, you’d have the same problem as me: is it even possible to choose just one adjective?  And besides, I worry: does the recipient of the adjective think I’m blind to all her other virtues?   Maybe it would be easier to go with animal names after all.  (Guess what, VigilantOne?  You are SO a Brown Bear.)

But you know, this idea of identifying just a tiny number of good qualities happens all the time – at funerals.  Every day, there’s someone writing a eulogy, trying to figure out how to summarize an entire person with just a few adjectives.

As it happens, I went to another funeral yesterday.  Funerals have a beautiful side to them because they’re so real.  The pretence of every day life is gone.  It’s a place where people will openly weep, even if it makes their mascara run.  It’s a time when people will finally talk about a person in terms of their virtues and what they meant to the people in their life.  We’re no longer talking about our cars, our homes, our careers, our trips, and we’re no longer talking (thank God!) about what the celebrities are doing and saying.  Instead, we’re talking about relationships and the good that this person did in life.  We stop for a moment and reflect on the fact that death is real, and we’ve got a limited amount of time to show our love to those around us.

But anyway, there was a eulogy delivered by the deceased’s sister.  She chose the word “forgiving” to describe the deceased.   And when you think about it, isn’t that one of the highest compliments that you could give a person?  St. Faustina said that Christ’s mercy is the trait which shows his greatness beyond all else.

What words would we want to be spoken about our life?  What two or three adjectives would you want to be used to summarize who you have been, and what you have meant to those around you?

And now I have to show you this Chesterton poem that I found just the other day.  It’s called “A List.”  I was astonished to see that he once named his friends with adjectives too:

I know a friend, very strong and good.
He is the best friend in the world.
I know another friend, subtle and sensitive.
He is certainly the best friend on earth.
I know another friend: very quiet and shrewd,
there is no friend so good as he.
I know another friend, who is enigmatical and reluctant,
he is the best of all.
I know yet another: who is polished and eager,
he is far better than the rest.
I know another, who is young and very quick,
he is the most beloved of all friends.
I know a lot more and they are all like that.

I think it’s rather nice.

But I also have to tell you what I saw online.

You see, this poem was quoted here and there, but what I saw was that it usually wasn’t quoted the way Chesterton wrote it.

In the first place, people changed at least one of these “he”s into “she”s.  Apparently it’s not acceptable for all his friends to be male, especially if he’s going to praise them.  I was appalled, but I guess if people are ready to change the words of Christ to make him sound politically-correct, then why would Chesterton be spared?  But I still protest, because at least with the Bible, you can easily cross-reference it with other versions.  With Chesterton’s work, most people don’t have access to a reputable version.

I don’t think a feminist would appreciate having the genders switched around on her writing.  If gender is negotiable in literature, then can we alter Patricia Irene Dunn’s phrase too?  The new version is, “A man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle.”

It’s not right – whether it’s Chesterton or Jesus or Dunn.  Let’s deal with the words as written.

I wonder if the friend described in this poem knows about his unwanted gender reassignment, performed decades after his death.  Maybe he’s getting teased in heaven.  “Hey Edmund!  Check it out!  They’ve made you into a ‘she’!   “What?”  “Yeah, no joke; look right over here: ‘ . . . another friend, who is enigmatical and reluctant, she is the best of all.’  Har har har.”

It’s not right.  They should leave these men as intact males or not quote the poem at all.

But continuing this theme, there’s a second way that they ‘improve’ the poem, and I bet you know what it is.  Yes, they delete the last word, because it’s “Amen.”  That’s even worse.  The last word changes the entire mood and message of the poem!  It’s the punch-line, if you will.  Maybe the thought is that it’s just ‘one little word,’ just an unimportant and antiquated flourish at the end which can be clipped.  In that vein, maybe the editors of today will issue a revised version of the Ten Commandments; they’ll just remove a few inconvenient words.  The new version will be: Thou shalt take the name of your Lord in vain . . . Thou shalt steal . . . Thou shalt commit adultery . . .

You need to keep the ‘Amen’ because it’s a key to understanding the poem, and also the poet.  To understand Chesterton is to understand that he was serious when he said, “the aim of life is appreciation.”  This poem is an example of appreciation.   He values his friends, and he values these qualities in his friends.  But it doesn’t stop there.  When you see the word “Amen,” at the end, you understand that this is not just a list, or even a poem.  It’s a prayer too – a prayer of thanksgiving.

“A List” reminds us that we could make a similar list of adjectives.  We could ‘adjectivize’ the people in our lives based on their virtues.  We all have friends better than we deserve, who have traits worth admiring and emulating.   And it’s this last word of his poem, this word which is so easily overlooked and unsaid, which reminds us that we have someone to thank for having these people in our lives.

Thank you, God, for giving us such worthy companions for life’s journey!




* SpiritedOne would like you to call her Veronica