Dear Johanna: What’s in a name? Living into who you are

Dear Johanna,

I want to talk to you about names—yours and mine and the meanings behind them.

Did you know that every name has a meaning?

It’s true. Fist names. Last names. Middle names. Nicknames. Whatever it is that we call another person comes from somewhere and means something, whether or not we realize it.

Sometimes that meaning is simple and sometimes it is profound.

Names are interesting things, Jo. They are an intimate piece of who we are, but also a regular part of our day-to-day lives. Our names are often the first string of letters we learn to write and the first bit of information we share about ourselves. When someone calls you by name—when they remember that you are Johanna and not Olivia or Sarah or some other little girl—it establishes a sense of connection, the first hint that you are known.

When someone forgets your name, on the other hand, it can feel as if they have forgotten you. It can make you feel unimportant. It can make you feel lost.

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We are named and renamed throughout our lives by people who call us whatever they want, from Miss or Sir or Teacher or Mommy, to Kiddo, Buddy, Honey, or Love.

Sometimes we are called by names we would rather not be, like Stupid, Idiot, Loser, or Jerk. But other times, we are called by names that are used just to show us we’re special. They can be common names, like Beautiful or Brother. Other times they are silly. Sometimes I call Aunt Abbie “Beagle” and often she calls me Sister Crane. Mon Petit Pois, which is French for “my little pea,” is one of my favorite names for one of my very best friends.

It is common for a name to be tied to a family or passed down from generations back. Your middle name, Ruth, is the same as your mother’s and your grandmother’s. Sometimes a name is selected just because it sounds nice, but often there is a meaning behind a name that is part of a bigger story, even if it wasn’t intended to be.

Your name, Johanna, is German, just like you and me and many of our relatives and ancestors. It is a special form of the name John, which means “God is gracious” or “God has shown favor.”

This is a wonderful promise for you to spend your life discovering. I imagine that for your parents (and for the rest of our family) that your very existence is a sign of God’s grace. Your eager and unexpected presence in the world was a blessing that we did not expect but were so happy to welcome. I hope that is how God’s grace happens for you—that you are surprised by the moments you are given exactly what you need, even and especially when you did not ask for it.

But chances are that this will not always seem to be so. Chances are that you will not always believe in this promise of grace.

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I have struggled Johanna, with the meaning of my own name, as I have with trying to live into the person I am meant to be.

When I was your age, I wanted to change my name to Samantha, which was the name that I adopted whenever we played pretend. It was just close enough to my own name to feel like it belonged to me, but different enough to allow me to be somebody else, someone more special or sophisticated, a little girl who would never be forgotten or overlooked.

As a teenager, I fixated on names and meanings and figuring out what it was that made people special and different and important to each other. I wanted to be special and different and important. I did not want to be one of many Amandas, set apart only by the last initial K.

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When I first arrived at Oxford in the fall of 2007, I met my junior dean, Jonathan, over tea in the kitchen of a house on Crick Road. As he poured milk into mugs and tea over top, he remarked on my name and its Latin roots.

“Amanda,” he said with a lilting British accent, “The girl who ought to be loved.”

It’s a moment I’ve come back to over and over in the past ten years, as I scrutinize the difference between “ought be to” and “is.” As I think of all of the times I’ve been told that, “Someday, Amanda, you’ll make someone very happy,” and I wonder if that is something that the other person really believes, especially if they are someone I would have liked to make very happy. And I wonder if it is something that I really believe myself.

Sometimes life does not provide enough evidence to validate the beliefs that we want to be true. Sometimes the contradictions stack up so high that we think we must have been wrong. Maybe I should have been christened, “The girl who tries too hard,” or “The girl who longs too deeply,” because either of those would be closer to my lived-out experience.

Then again, maybe our names are not predictions of the lives we will lead or the people we will become. Maybe they are the promises we need to keep waking to each morning and hoping that someday we will claim as true, that at another later time, we will experience the promise fulfilled.

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There may be days, Johanna, that you wake up in the world and everything around you says that God is not gracious. That God is angry or inactive or altogether absent. Those can be difficult seasons to walk through. There are days that I wake up and everything around me says that I am not worthy of love. That I am deficient and defective and never ever enough of whatever I should be, and those are difficult seasons for me, as well.

I cannot promise to end the seasons or to stop them from coming, but I can promise to be with you through them. I can remind you of the fact that you were created and named and born into grace. That your life is a miracle that I am grateful to witness and that each day is a gift, even when it really does not feel that way at all. And maybe you can help me in my struggles as well, by naming and renaming me when I need to hear it most.

You know, Jo, of all the millions of little humans who are out there in the world, there is only one who calls me “Auntie Amanda,” and that is you. That name reminds me of the connection that only we share, and it reminds me of the promises we both get to hold to, that God is gracious and we are beloved, even and especially in the times that we don’t feel like it.

Whether or not this is one of those times, I want you to know how how special you are, and I want you to remember the power of naming, of the life you can give just by reminding someone they are worthy. I call you my niece. I call you Jo. I call you Beloved, because that is what you are.

God has been gracious in making you mine.

All of my love,

Auntie Amanda

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