Defining new words is eminently satisfying: a new shared set of ideas and connotations is lodged in our brains.
Defining scientific equations is likewise illuminating, providing a solid new stepping stone to understanding how the world works.
Defining living creatures, however, that’s a bit more complex. Looking at my cat as I am now, I can see that she is a cat, and a female, and a mammal, and I know the name we gave her (Romana, after the best classic Doctor Who companion, of course.) But all those things don’t define her, she herself wouldn’t even recognize any of them.
People are even harder to pin down. Even the people I love the most, even the ones I have named myself, will never be completely known to me. Their names carry all the connotations of their beautiful lives, from hospital bracelet to report card, but their names fully define them. Only they know their own mind (and often, we don’t even know that all that well.)
The names we use for living creatures are fairly arbitrary anyway, determined by trend or whim. Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” famously notes this while bemoaning that her love’s last name shows he is an enemy. She says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
(That said, Anne of Green Gables had a point (as she always did) when she said “I never never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”)
The inadequacy of a name is also explored in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” by CS Lewis, in which traveling children meet a man who says he was a star in the sky. The dubious character Eustace says, “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas,” and the man replies “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
It begs the question of what name an alien race might call us – “ugly bags of mostly water,” as one does in Star Trek?
Nevertheless, for as arbitrary, inadequate, and even misleading as names are, names are of still paramount importance. Anyone watching Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” can surely attest to this. In it women have been forced into a kind of slavery, each in a strict role. Those who are made into handmaids must bear children for important men, and in the process, lose their old name. They are called “Of-“ the man’s name. The main character June is called Offred.
There are so many exquisite truths in this adaptation of the Margaret Atwood book – its depictions of the terrible horrors humans can inflict upon each other is so deftly paired with how beautiful it is when humans are at their best. One of those truths is that June’s name, and all of the handmaid’s names, are representative of who they were and who they really are. When in a recent episode some handmaids shared their true names, a simple moment becomes saturated with significance. I was floored by this little but very real rebellion.
For the handmaids, and for us as well, a name can be a portkey – a Harry Potter term for an object that when touched can transport you where you want to go. Their real names transport them back to their own identity. Nicknames can function this way as well, joining two people in a mutual memory, perhaps in childhood.
Like so many things, names can be useful and even profound – as long as we remember how limited they are. When we call someone “daughter,” we must remember that is not all that they are. When we call someone “friend,” we likewise should know that is not the only name or function that they have. And certainly no person should ever be defined as being only functional to another (looking at you, Fred, you gross symbol of Dystopia.)
But if we see our names, our words, and our equations, for the flawed by functional tools they are, we can all advance together. Margaret Atwood herself, of course, famously said that “a word after a word after a word is power.”
And so in yoga we can use our flawed definitions as well. We define our space in yoga class with our mat – it’s good to know where your boundaries are so you don’t hit someone in the head when you go into three-legged dog, after all. We also define our bodies with poses that test our muscles’ limits and their own definitions of what they can do. But we as we define oursevles, we also explore, always stretching out a little bit more – humbling extending what is possible (with an apology if that means my butt in your face.)