Contributed by Roger Edwards
In the 7th grade, a classmate nicknamed me: “The Professor.” The nickname stuck - both on me and in me. On me, as in a label. And in me, as in a knife. In middle school, “The Professor”, was not a title of endearment, nor an affirmation of superior intellect. No, it was meant to take me down a notch or two. It did.
My classmate saw me as a “know-it-all”, someone who showed off by “knowing-more-than-you” in class discussions. His opinion, apparently shared by my other classmates, was oft repeated. I was the last to know that I acted like this. I was hurt. Then confused. Like so many in middle-school, I was adrift identity-wise.
I tried several defenses. I tried to act like I didn’t care, but of course, I desperately wanted to be accepted. Then, I tried not to speak up in class, hiding knowledge if I had it. Then, I tried to prove that I did too have knowledge, by speaking up more. It just got worse. Finally, I turned to humor. I became “The Comedian”, though not officially named. I practiced. I memorized jokes and routines that I saw on TV. I found I had some talent for it, so I kept at it. But more importantly, I found that other people liked it better.
So I invested in my new identity, practicing and honing it through high school and beyond. I worked at it; it worked for me. Until it didn’t. Sometimes, people didn’t want or need a joke. Sometimes, I wanted to be taken seriously. Sometimes, I just didn’t want the pressure to be funny.
Throughout, I wondered if there was more to me. Even then, I was aware that “The Comedian” was a defense mechanism, a role that I played in awkward moments. I liked the laughter and the ability bring it out of people, but it was one-dimensional and restrictive too.
This is true of all the “roles” we learn to navigate with in our social world: “The Athlete,” ” The Good Girl,” “The Get-it-Done Team Player.” They only reveal a part of us. They are not the whole story. We know this. We feel lonely or misunderstood. But it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the role. In fact, we tend to re-create the role throughout our lives, falling back into our routines whenever we are fearful or insecure. We develop an uneasy alliance with our nicknames and aliases. One the one hand, we cling to their familiarity and, but on the other, wish to throw off their reduction of our soul.
We need a Name
You desperately want a name – an authentic, unique-to-you name. You cannot help but long for this – it is an innate need. Middle-school classmates are typically not kind enough nor wise enough to see underneath and call you who you really are. When they misname you or abusively name you, you try to make a name for yourself. But naming ourselves never works because we cannot get under all the masks either. We are too close and too afraid to name the core of ourselves.
Two Sources for Our Name
If we are to be named as who we really are, then it will have to come from the outside. There are two sources where we discover our name.
The first and ultimate source is God
God - the kind and wise Knower of our soul. The One who knit us together in our mother’s womb. This happens as we get to know Him. He speaks to us, He helps us see what we truly long for and helps us give who we are to others. This brings us to the second source -
A Loving Community
As we grow and offer ourselves to others, our core gifts emerge. As we receive from others, our core needs emerge. We are, by God’s design, social creatures - we can only know ourselves (and of course, be known) in relation to others.
It is true that ‘competitive-comparison’ (as happens in middle school and sometimes church) can be ‘character-assassinating’. But community doesn’t have to be that way. Community (or family) can be compassionate rather than competitive and relating rather than comparing. Community like this is the opposite of character-assassinating; it is character-birthing. Our true selves come alive in love. God helps you discover and grow into the truer you through the experience of giving and receiving. Iron sharpens iron. Love builds up.
What to do next...
You want to know your real name? Want to live out of your deeper self? You will have to do two scary things:
First, come out from behind your mask and ask God to see you and name you.
Second, come out from behind your mask and entrust yourself to loving community.