Published on June 16th, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks

Life & Fiction: The Power of Naming

Welcome to Life & Fiction: a quiet, colorful corner to discuss fiction, its building blocks, and how other examples of blatant non-reality provide insight and skills for the daily work of living.

Names have power.

It’s a consistent story element across cultures and epochs.

Possessing someone’s True Name gives you power over him or her.

Guarding your True Name, or sharing it, is an important part of either protecting yourself or expressing your trust in another person.

In the Bible, the first man, Adam, is told to name the creatures, and there are those who tie this naming to the position of authority he was given in the created order.

Real-world parallels I can imagine are all the TV shows, movies, and novels where protecting (or discovering) the cover identities of secret agents is the core goal.

The name for anything is a word, and words hold power as well.

Words are one of the few tools we humans have for imposing order on the world around us. (There are other tools of course, such as numbers, but I must leave the treatments of those to other types of souls.)

Once we’ve named something, we’ve put it in its place. We’ve laid the foundation for how we will interact with it, how we will treat it. A word gives shape to the liquid intangibility of feeling and experience. A word is a vessel for truth and connection.

Using words to describe an emotion (or jumble of emotions) moves our experience of that emotion from the reaction parts of the brain (amygdala and hippocampus) and into the part of the brain where all of our “grown up” thinking happens (the frontal cortex).  This is where we want to be making decisions from.

The emotions don’t completely migrate; you don’t necessarily stop feeling angry, afraid, or grief-stricken, but through naming, you enter a process that allows you to move from feeling helpless into a place where you might be able to take action.

Did you see the part of the movie Apollo 13 where the engineers dumped a pile of junk on the table? They show the engineers everything they have to work with, what they’re limited to as they try to save the astronauts’ lives, and then get started.

     “The people upstairs have handed us this one. Let’s get this organized. And some coffee started.”

That is what the naming process does for you.

You may still be scared, you may even still be in danger, but you’re also taking an honest assessment of what’s going on, which is the first step toward meaningful work

What do I call meaningful work? When I make progress.

I feel like I’m really onto something when decision-making and action-steps are so perfect they seem to generate the energy they need to happen.

This meaning, this naming, this focusing in order to create order, comes together for me in fiction. This is why I see the inclusion of fiction as valuable in any discussion about living with mental illness or surviving emotional damage.

Fiction introduces our minds to experiences and emotional complexities that can help us practice for real life.

We choose our stories not just to “escape reality.” That can be one function of fiction, but most of us demand more than an escape. Or, to put it another way, to be a true escape, something we can get lost in, the story we’re choosing has to match our most-important attitudes and expectations.

Many of us read (or choose our movies, or TV shows) because they give us a reality we hunger for; something we wish (or know) is true and don’t get enough of in our everyday lives.

My hungers include commitment and cooperation, so teamwork shows (Person of Interest, Bones) are more meaningful and interesting to me than competition shows (Survivor, The Job).

In fiction, conflict is what creates a story. For example, Person A wants something and kills Person B to get it. Persons C-G don’t agree with this action and ensure Person A is held responsible.

There are many ways to create conflict, but as they eventually say in most of the body-a-week shows: motivations are rarely original. Money, pride, revenge, and desire surface again and again with tragically effective results.

Tragic because they reflect the painful reality of life.

In a similar way, most interpersonal conflicts tend to fall into a similarly narrow areas of evil. Sometimes it’s misunderstanding, sometimes it’s unkindness or cruelty, but taking the time to move the experience from the experiencing/reactive parts of the brain and into the processing part can provide deeper insight.

The beauty of fiction is that, very often, someone else has done the processing work for us, making it easier for us to start our own sorting.

Please join me in this column for a monthly look at stories, the bones of writing, and how they help us better understand ourselves and the people who surround us.

Image altered from a photo by Kruno Knezevic via Stock.Xchng.

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