Contrary to popular understanding, the well-known line from the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet that my title references is not questioning where Romeo is but why he had to be Romeo, at all. Why did the man (well, “man”) that Juliet fell in love with have to be Romeo Montague, a member of a rival family, instead of any other possible person he could have been? She goes on to ask, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Although her sentiment is correct, I have always wondered whether or not she would have had the same dilemma had she known from the start who he was: the rose may smell as sweet with another name but it is understandable to question smelling something called a vomitsprout.
Names can have a powerful effect on our perception of and expectations for a person: if an author introduced a character named Butch, the reader would not imagine the character as a diminutive weakling without prior characterization or appropriate description. Sometimes, our prejudices with certain names are more idiosyncratic: for years, I would initially dislike anyone who went by “Joe” simply because they shared the same name as my father. Our experiences with certain people can cause us to revile a name, while those with others might redeem it.
I find it interesting, then, to note that the most common staple of our identities is largely something assigned to us at birth. Some parents might decide to name their child after other family members or friends: my niece, Mikayla, was given a feminine form of my own name; others might name their child after qualities that they hope he or she will have: e.g. Faith or Charity; while still others give their children names based upon their etymology. I once met a girl whose parents named her after the final destination they hoped she would find: Heaven. Regardless of the particular reason for a name, it is generally attached to the person for the rest of time, regardless of its aptness: I’m reminded of a scene from Dead Like Me in which George wonders of her mother, “Who had the nerve to name you ‘Joy’?”
I am an exception to this, having decided to rename myself at the age of ten. The particular reasons for changing my name from Joseph Edwin Wilkinson III to something else entirely have never been much of a mystery to me, my family or anyone who knows me to any real extent. In recent years, however, I have begun to question why I chose the name I did. Why am I Michael instead of Paul, Lucifer, Onesimus or any other name in existence that I could have chosen?
In the past, people have balked at my name being different previously: “You just aren’t a Joseph. I can’t imagine you as anyone but Michael.” But this is because they have known me by my current name, and it has become so ingrained in their internal projection of my identity that to remove or change it just seems inherently wrong. I can assure you that I had the same reaction from most people when I decided to change my name and would have regardless of the new one. Had I chosen a different name back then, the reaction now would be, “You just aren’t a Joseph. I can’t imagine you as anyone but Osiris.”
At ten, I decided that I wanted people to think “Michael” when they saw my face, heard my voice or thought of me in any way. This might all seem like senseless navel-gazing, but it can be quite disconcerting to realize that fifteen years ago, you decided on a name for yourself and haven’t the faintest clue as to the reason. There is a good side to this disquieting discovery, though: this inspection has led me to finally begin to understand why.
At eight years old, my family lived in Titusville, Florida. One of the churches we went to was Central Baptist Church and it was the source of quite a few good memories. The pastor and his wife had a son named Michael who, from what I remember, was either just starting college or had just graduated. What initially drew me to Michael was that he played video games, specifically ones that I liked. He was the only adult I had met that would not only talk with me about them but didn’t seem to find me annoying when doing so. That small kindness meant the world to me, although I tried to hide it as best I could for fear that he would think I was strange.
When the Super Bowl came around that year, my mother and I went to the pastor’s house for a party. Being not the least bit interested in sports, I sought other forms of entertainment lest I be subjected to the horrible fate of watching football and listening to grown-up conversation. Sensing my bereavement (or, more likely, overhearing me complaining to my mother about being bored over and over again), Michael took me up to his room, showed me where he kept his games and told me that I was free to play up there until the party was over. I asked him if he was worried about me messing up any of his stuff. He responded that he knew I took care of my own belongings, and he was sure that I would be safe with his. This statement instilled in me a sense of worth: he had noticed something about me without my having to point it out and, because of that, decided that I was trustworthy.
By the end of the night, I ended up back downstairs, asleep in the midst of the football festivities. When it was time for us to take our leave, my mother attempted to wake me, but I pretended to still be asleep. The closest approximation to a reason I have been able to conjure up is that I simply wanted to see what would happen if I remained immovable on the floor.
I certainly didn’t expect to be hoisted into the air by Michael.
My mother said something along the lines of, “That’s amazing, Michael. He barely lets anyone touch him.”
It surprised me that others had noticed, but I did indeed shy away from people whenever they came close or tried to show any form of physical affection. There was a certain terror in the idea of allowing anyone to know how much they meant to me, like it would expose some kind of subjugating power they held. Then would come rejection, betrayal and all of the other abominations more frightening than any imagined monster.
But this was different: I was “asleep”; I was admitting nothing. As Michael carried me to the car, I felt truly safe for the first time. For a large portion of my childhood, I would return to those moments whenever I felt alone or afraid and, no matter how horrible the current situation looked to me, would be able to find comfort in the thought of being held by someone that had been kind to me for no understandable reason.
I remember my thought processes well enough to know that I never made a conscious decision to name myself after Michael, but I cannot escape the suspicion that he was the one who so endeared the name to me. It is appropriate that he bore a name that means “who is like God,” as his areligious actions did more to help me understand the love of God than countless hours in Sunday school ever did. It is truly regrettable that I was never able to reveal to him how much this simple gesture meant to an introspective and lonely little boy.
Regardless of my exact motivation for taking it as my own, I am proud to now share my name with him and can only hope that my own interactions with others have done and will do justice to it.