What’s in a name? The question has been asked and then answered in as many ways as the number of persons posing the question. To many, it is a matter of extreme importance, with success in life riding on having the right name. To others, their own names become curse words, epithets to be uttered in moments of embarrassment and despair. Some make light of their monikers; many find nicknames and “street names” to be an adequate foil to the reality of an undesirable given name. I have told you before of my dilemma, minor as it is; finding myself known by scores of folks in my town by my wife’s maiden name, since I’m the proprietor of a music store bearing her family name. A few folks even call me by a completely unrelated name, drawn from who knows what origin? I’m not sure it really matters.
I won’t pretend to be in a position to settle the argument regarding the importance of a name, although I do tend to agree with Shakespeare’s Juliet when she reminds her boyfriend, Romeo, that she loves the person, not a name. Her famous line sums it up for me (although not for others): “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” My belief is that we make our name into what it means, not the other way around. If you take a moment to consider that, you’ll be able to come up with some names that prove the theory. Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr., Orville and Wilbur Wright…These are just a few to prime the pump. Narrow the process down to your personal experience and you’ll have more than plenty of names to chew on. You know who they are. All it takes is for someone to mention the name and you have a picture in your head. Pastors, teachers, thugs, crooks…their lives have determined the aroma that wafts through the air as their names are brought to mind.
I sat with my father for a few brief hours a couple of weeks ago and he told me stories of my family I had never heard. I knew that my family name only goes back a couple of generations. My great-grandfather changed his name from that of his biological father to that of his mother’s third husband. There was no blood relationship, but he liked the man better than the one who had abandoned his mother when he was very young. I had heard a rumor that the name change was a ruse to share in some of the Phillips Oil fortune and it is probably true that my great-grandfather’s step-father was related to that family, but financial gain was not the motive. If my father had stopped there in his narrative, I would have been relieved to finally put that old tale of chicanery to bed, but Dad then told me “the rest of the story”.
It seems that some time after my great-grandfather died, some of the relatives of the deceased man came to my grandfather, by then the father of two young boys. I’ve told you that my grandfather was poor and worked long, hard days at manual labor to try and support his family. The relatives came with an offer. If the young man would change his family name back to what it had been originally, there would be a good sum of inheritance money coming his way. It would be enough that he would never have to call himself poor again. As my dad talked to me about the event, I could see the pride showing through. My father is not given to “family pride”; not interested in bragging about the past, but I could tell that this was different. He was sharing with me his father’s moment of triumph. There weren’t many of those moments for my grandfather during his lifetime. Without taking more than a few seconds to consider the offer, my grandfather turned it down. “I’ve been a Phillips and been poor all of my life,” he averred. “I guess I’ll stay that way for the rest of it.” Money couldn’t buy the man or his name. Unlike Esau in the Old Testament, his hunger wasn’t great enough to entice him to give up who he was. I will freely admit that I’m even a little proud of my Grandpa.
What’s in a name? I’m thinking that we’re all still answering that. As long as we breathe, we are defining who we are as human beings. Mere months ago, the name of Paterno brought to mind a strong, bright builder of men; a coach who was a winner, both on the field and off of it. When Joe Paterno died a couple of weeks ago, the name had become a curse word on many folks’ lips. Now synonymous with weakness and lack of integrity, the aroma had changed with the knowledge of one event, probably almost forgotten by the man himself until fate brought it to light anew. One event, one action, is all it may take to determine an infamous reputation for a name. It takes a lifetime of choices, of self-discipline, to build a good name. What was it that Mr. Aesop had to say? Oh yes! “Slow and steady wins the race.” We’re not in a sprint, not even in a marathon. This is a life-long event which will be finished by all, but only a few will win the prize. I’d like to be one of those.
Call me what you want. Phillips, Paul, Stephen, Christian, husband, father, musician, businessman…the list goes on. I’m just hoping the air around me is filled with a pleasant aroma, and that whatever name sticks will be remembered by those I leave behind with fondness and yes, maybe even a small amount of pride. I’ve still got a little time to work on that.
Oh! And, there’s room for more than one on the road, so why don’t you come on along! Slow and steady…it’s a winning pace!
“Not to the swift, the race. Not to the strong, the battle…”
“The purest treasure mortal times afford, is spotless reputation; that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay.”
(William Shakespeare~English playwright~1564-1616)