A Dear John Letter

My friend John Siliphant, who is in the midst of an incredible service journey in the heat and dust of Ahmedabad, India, posted a nice entry on his blog last week, considering the shortcomings of the names our parents give to us at birth. He argues that names bind us to our past rather than helping to unlock our potential, and that they fail to capture the significance of our lives:

I don’t believe in “John Silliphant.” Like the I of the past, it is just too loaded with mediocre assumptions – of a known personality and its structure – a type of a prison built of limited identity. I am a brilliant rising sun, a dark cry of anguish, a subtle bliss within the universe. Somehow it’s very difficult to capture that in a Western name.

I wanted to post a rebuttal, but his blog wouldn’t accomodate all I wished to say. So I’m writing him here.


There are many interesting ideas in your post, True Self. Let me just address one of them.

You complain that the many wondrous things that comprise and involve you cannot be adequately captured in a name. Indeed, you pick on “Western Names” specifically, presumably because they generally fail to denote or allude to deeper meanings – they are simply markers rather than descriptions. Let me speak in favor of naming in this way.

Meaningful (descriptive) naming, as is done in many cultures, really represents the best hopes and aspirations of the parents. It is at best wistful, not predictive or objective. The name is given long before the potential itself goes on display. Descriptive names can be beautiful, but they are really nothing more than that.

The practice of taking (or being given) a meaning-laden name later in life, as many of our mutual friends have done, would seem to address the timing issue. The belated naming at least gives the namer a chance to match the significance of the name with what they believe to be the essence of the person. But is this any more satisfying than carrying the generic identifier “John”? Not really. No matter how apt the descriptive quality of the name (like that of our lovely friend Shantideva), the portraiture of the name can only capture a narrow view of a complex and multifaceted personality. The non-descript Western name takes no chance; but it also makes no pretenses and no ironic mistakes.

Some people find it slightly awkward to take a name from another person or from a culture from which one does not hail, no matter one’s affection for the namesake, the culture, or the name itself. I confess I am not in that camp. While naming is not descriptive, it is certainly a literary exercise. I see no reason to refrain from celebrating history or culture in a personal identifier. There is something lovely about naming a child after a favorite aunt or a college roommate. My sister gave her son a Malian name, Kebe; and I call him after the great Khumbu Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Both these names hold within them aspirations for this wonderful child; but neither my sister nor I forget that he is a little white American kid, growing up in San Francisco.

As with any well-struck literary allusion, there can be magic, joy, and poetry in a name. That’s all to the good. But we should bear in mind that the important function is merely to identify.

This sounds deflating; but it is not. In fact, I think there is tremendous philosophical value in understanding naming in this prosaic way. In my view, there are two ways of looking at the world – two fundamental epistemologies – both of which are correct, both of which are essential, only one of which most people seem to take the time for. In the first – the universally accepted view – we understand who we are and how we interact in the world. We understand that there is difference between ourselves and the things and other beings with which and whom we occupy space. The second view, less widely held, sees that we are part of one, limitless, interconnected system. We cannot meaningfully differentiate the us that we are given understand from our primary view of reality from the other things we experience in the world. In my opinion, these views are not antithetical, nor must one chose between them. They are two correct, but very different ways of looking at a single reality. It’s like the question in physics: is light is a wave or a particle? Ask a wave question, get a wave answer. Ask a particle question, get a particle answer.

How does this relate to naming? I think that by claiming modest goals for the giving of a name, we remind ourselves that the first view of reality – in which things are identified in order to help perceive difference – is not the only correct way to look at the world.

John Siliphant by any other name would smell as sweet.



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