In the 7th grade, a classmate nicknamed me “The Professor.” The nickname stuck both on me and in me. It stuck on me, as in a label. And it stuck into me, as in a knife. “The Professor” was not a title of endearment, not an affirmation of superior intellect. It was meant to take me down a notch or two. It did.
My classmate saw me as a “know-it-all” – someone who thought of themselves as smarter and showed it by “knowing-more-than-you.” This opinion, apparently shared by my other classmates, was oft repeated. The label stuck. I was the last to know that I acted like I already knew everything. I was hurt. Then confused. Like so many in middle-school, I was adrift identity-wise.
I tried several defenses. I acted like I didn’t care. But I did. I desperately wanted to be accepted by my peers. First, I tried not to speak up in class, hiding knowledge if I had it. Then I tried to show 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 had a talent for it. I found that other people liked it better.
So I took on the role, practiced 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 didn’t want the pressure of being funny. Throughout, I wondered if there was more to me. I was aware that “The Comedian” was at least partially a defense mechanism, a role that I played in awkward moments. I liked laughter and the talent to bring it out of people, but it was one-dimensional.
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 is increasingly difficult to shake the role. In fact, we tend to re-create the role throughout our lives, falling back into our routines whenever stressed. We develop an uneasy alliance with our nicknames, pseudonyms, aliases. One the one hand, we cling to their familiarity and, on the other, wish to throw off their reduction of our soul.
You desperately want a name – an authentic, unique-to-you name. You cannot help but long for this – it is an innate need. Your middle-school classmates are 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 cannot name the core.
If we are to be named as who we really are, then it will have to come from the outside. A loving community can help do this – but even a loving community has its limits. Ultimately, in order for you to matter, in order for you to bear meaning – you will have to be Named in the same way you were called into existence. You will have to be Named by God – the kind and wise knower of your soul.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. In addition to counseling individuals & couples, Roger teaches & leads discussion groups about applying the Bible to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor, holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana & earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from UNCC. He is married to Jean, and they have seven children.