Do you easily forget names? I do. The truth is I’ve always been terrible with names, or so I thought.
For years I’d make the excuse that I ran in too many circles of acquaintance to remember everyone: military, hospital, church and journalism. It never seemed fair to me that people who forgot my name always had a reliable alternative of calling me, “Chaplain.”
Truthfully, I’ve relied on alternative tricks, too. For instance, I’d use a greeting without using a name. “Hey, what’s up?” I’d ask a nurse. Or I’d greet the housekeeper with, “How about that football game?”
The problem with that strategy is after you’ve worked somewhere for a few years, people think it’s rude. That’s because it is.
Worse yet is to call someone the wrong name. I once had a chaplain supervisor who called me Norm the first month I knew him. After I corrected him, he still didn’t get it. He’d just summon me into his office with a mumble that sounded something like, “Nimmmm.”
Don’t laugh! Some of you use the wrong name or title in the emails you send me. Some readers reverse my first name with my last and call me Mr. Norris. Others misspell my last name as Burk or Burke. My mom will tell you that the “s” which ends both my names is extremely important.
When my emails start with “Chaplin,” I know the writer has confused me with the Chaplin (Charlie), who was the iconic filmmaker of the silent era. I’m just a hospital chaplain who is rarely silent.
Of course, I try to be forgiving when someone forgets my name because I know that everyone forgets a name from time-to-time. It’s embarrassing, but we just keep doing it anyway.
Last December when I started my new job working as chaplain for the VA hospital in Sacramento, I asked myself a difficult question. Why do I forget names?
I tried to excuse myself by saying that there are good reasons for forgetting names. Sometimes we are stressed or depressed or exhausted. In my case, I had convinced myself I had way too many names to remember.
However, I was “forgetting” names because I didn’t care to make the effort to remember. I had centered my world on what I was doing as a chaplain, and not on what the staff and people around me were doing in their world.
So I made a New Year’s resolution to work harder at remembering names. In fact, I promised myself that I’d repeatedly ask the same people for their name until I memorized them. I pledged to do this despite the fact it would be embarrassing to admit to such a poor memory.
I undertook this strategy because names aren’t just funny-sounding words or inconsequential labels. Names represent real people who deserve to be acknowledged as people of God. God must think so, too, because the Psalmist quoted God as saying, “Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine.”
My resolution has proven to be the opposite of embarrassing. Now when I’m walking the hospital corridors, I readily greet folks like Stan, Monica and Tim. Then I go to the nursing units and say hello to Judy, Sarah, Mark and Tommy.
I’d recite more names for you, but I’d run out of space. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ll be running out of new friends anytime soon.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist and author.
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