Monday, July 25, 2011

What's in a Name?

Juliet asked the question, what's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!
Anne of Green Gables responded that she thought that a rose could not possibly smell as sweet if it were called a skunk cabbage.

I think we can all appreciate that words matter, and that there is value in using the proper word or name for a thing. I would argue in favor of proper terminology, even if we have to overcome some personal baggage about it. I always felt a bit awkward about proper anatomical names for males, but now that I have little boys I do teach them what their parts are called, and I don't say "that's your wee-wee."

For years I was turned off by the word "feminism," and yet, now that I understand what it is (or, more specifically, what third wave feminism is), I find that I am more comfortable with it, and can even apply it to myself. I got over my personal baggage, so that I could use the most accurate word.

I now find several people have responded to me with discomfort or distaste at my use of the word 'pagan' and at my applying it to myself. Sure, I could say "earth-based spirituality" or "seasonal awareness" or "mindful, balanced, peaceful, harmonious, intentional living" or a dozen other things, but the truth is that one word sums it all up more effectively than a dozen tongue-twisting phrases. And so I use the one word. And just as I have been getting over my personal baggage about the word "feminism," so too some other folks need to get over their personal baggage about the word "pagan."

Since the beginning of time, some societies and groups have belittled and disenfranchised other groups. Some groups became powerful so they wrote the histories and somehow we have often believed their one-sided stories without stopping to try to learn the other half...but that is neither logical nor appropriate. To learn what it means to be in an ethnic minority, there is no better way than to get to know someone from that demographic. To know what it is to be Mormon, one should ask a Mormon rather than a Southern Baptist. And to learn what 'pagan' means, one should ask a pagan; because whatever anybody else says will probably be tinted.

If you're familiar with the movie "The Princess Bride" then you probably remember this scene.
Buttercup: But how is that possible [that you're the Dread Pirate Roberts], since he's been marauding twenty years, and you only left me five years ago?

Westley: I myself am often surprised at life's little quirks. See, what I told you before about saying "please" was true. It intrigued Roberts...[and he] and I eventually became friends. And then it happened. Roberts had grown so rich, he wanted to retire. So he took me to his cabin, and told me his secret. "I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts", he said. "My name is Ryan. I inherited the ship from the previous dread pirate Roberts, just as you will inherit it from me. The man I inherited it from was not the real dread pirate Roberts either. His name was Cummerbund. The real Roberts has been retired fifteen years and living like a king in Patagonia." Then he explained that the name was the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear. You see, no one would surrender to the dread pirate Westley. So we sailed ashore, took on an entirely new crew, and he stayed aboard for a while as first mate, all the time calling me Roberts. Once the crew believed, he left the ship, and I have been Roberts ever since.
Words and names can indeed be powerful things. The same few letters that inspire one person can terrify another. And therein is the crux of the matter: a word may carry baggage, but it is only as powerful for us as we allow it to be, and it only means what we believe it means. So let us be mindful of our own baggage when we encounter words. And try to be conscious of the literal meanings of the word, and of the intended meanings of the speaker or writer. And do not fear a word in an of itself.


choice_spirit said...


So, you consider yourself a Pagan Mormon? Do you know how many of us there are?! Welcome!

Jenni said...

Choice_Spirit and

Jena said...

Well said! I've been working on examining my word baggage lately, too. Go us.

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