What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

I had the most unusual experience a summer or so ago at a camp where I met a young girl who told me she didn’t like her last name. Now, I’m not so naïve that I’ve never heard someone say such a thing. But until this point, I had never met someone who seemed to have such sorrow over their name. It was an internal sorrow, not connected to the way her name was perceived by others, but by a deep sense of being oppressed by her name.

Caily (name changed to protect privacy) was effusive and loving. I also noticed that she was amazingly tired. On a bright sunny day, where other girls would fill the halls and corridors with laughter, she came in a bit sullen and would often fall asleep. I soon discovered that both she and her sister had to take some pretty heavy medications to deal with the abuse they had endured as very young children at the hands of their fathers.

As we talked, I was surprised at her sense of knowing herself and being so aware of the impact of the trauma she had faced. It was emotional for me to witness the pureness of her spirit as she navigated the safe space created for her at the camp to just “be.” Be herself, be loving, be tired, be happy, be sad….just be. Those gentle hugs, which were more like taps on the back of my shoulders, were precious gifts from a soul interrupted.

During our conversation, she told me, “I don’t like my last name. It’s his [her father’s] name and it reminds me of him. He wasn’t a good person.” She also said, “I love it here because I can be myself.” It reminded me of the power of a name to define us and remind us. It also reminded me of the greater power of community to break the chains that bind us and allow us to fully emerge.

In that space, created by a group of women who volunteer to put on the camp, Caily was able to emerge from the name of her abusive father into her beloved and beautiful self. Like the flowers that were blooming in the fields, she was unfolding and developing each year of that camp in the safety of nurturing arms. She was being renamed as a beloved child of God, a friend, a giver and a gift!

The work of development can be complex. It is social, psychological, and emotional. It is systemic and individual. It is also simple. Caily was loved as much as she loved being there. Love is a powerful tool in a world of professional development and technical solutions. It is as powerful as goals, logic models, and theories of change. It is, in the spirit of Kung Fu Panda, the not-so-secret ingredient.