The Power of Names

I have never fully understood why, in movies, the main characters, upon meeting in key scenes, greet each other by saying their names aloud and looking into each other’s eyes with intensity. Sometimes, these encounters don’t lead to further conversation, yet the scenes convey more clarity and intensity than any dialogue could. In Polish culture, we don’t seem to have this trend, or perhaps I just haven’t observed it. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be more direct and open in their interactions, often addressing each other by name. In contrast, Europeans often use impersonal sentences or titles like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” The situation becomes even more intriguing in Asian countries, where individuals often use business titles and surnames even outside the workplace, and they have a wide array of titles depending on the age of the person they are interacting with. In Poland, using only surnames can be seen as offensive and using professional titles as mocking. Every country has its own customs, and by observing how people interact, we can discern what’s prioritized in each culture.

When watching Korean dramas, for instance, we often hear professional titles right from the start. In Korea, professional life and work are highly regarded, making them proud and honorable citizens. Addressing someone by their first name is considered very intimate and personal, indicating strong, enduring relationships between individuals. Americans, in contrast, tend to view using first names as common and don’t necessarily consider it rude. They often speak informally to strangers, as if they already know each other. Such situations are less frequent in Poland. For instance, when I’m coming back home and my mother uses my full name while looking directly at me, I know something is amiss. When my coworkers call me by my title, “Mrs. Director,” I understand that something serious has occurred. However, cultural differences don’t change the fact that our names do hold a hidden power, much like words, which carry their own energy and can change the world. This challenges the old adages that dismiss words as insignificant, such as “it’s just words” or “it’s just a name, it means nothing.” Do they really mean nothing?

Recently, I watched the 2003 Oscar-winning Japanese anime “Spirited Away.” The main character is a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who, together with her parents, accidentally enters the land of gods. Her parents are transformed into pigs as punishment for consuming the gods’ food. The girl, who survives and plans to rescue them, starts working for the powerful witch Yubaba, who manages a bathhouse for the gods. From the very beginning, a young boy who also works for the witch, named Haku, assists her. When Chihiro signs a contract, she is given a new name, and Haku warns her about the consequences of this decision.

“By stealing someone's name, Yubaba takes power over people. If you forget your true name, you will never come back home.”

At first glance, this may seem like a simple rule, typical of fairy tales. However, if we believe that names and words have their own power and significance, the situation takes on a different light. Haku is essentially saying, “If you forget who you are, you will never find your way back home, which means never finding peace. You will wander in this world without a purpose, without a destination.” But what does “home” really mean to us? It’s not just a physical building; our bodies are also home to our souls, our consciousness, and our true selves. We all know our identities as children, arriving in this world as unique, perfect beings. Over time, our self-esteem is systematically eroded, and we begin to assume different identities, hiding behind masks with foreign faces, striving to be someone else with a different name. Eventually, we stop taking care of our true selves and chase illusions of something better. This is when we lose our connection to ourselves and can no longer identify what truly matters to us because, in reality, these goals are not our own; we no longer know who we are. This is what Haku is trying to convey to Chihiro. He means that if you forget who you are, you will never come back home because you won’t know where home is.
Who among us, as children, didn’t pretend to be a character from a movie or TV show, adopting their name and asking parents to call them by that name? For many of us, this innocent act of childhood play continued into adulthood. How often have you wished to be like a popular colleague, an older sibling, or another person you admire, starting to imitate their behavior, dress, and appearance? The longer we play the role of someone else, the more it ceases to be a role. Eventually, we replace our true selves with someone else and forget our true name. Some of us may have difficulty finding our way home because we abandoned it long ago. Fortunately, there is hope. It is impossible to completely lose ourselves, and we always have the option to return. However, the longer we stay away from home, the more challenging the journey back becomes. Haku waited for years until Chihiro helped him remember who he is.

“Chihiro, you broke the spell. I don't have to serve Yubaba anymore, and I can leave. I got my name back, and now I'm free. Just like you, I can return to my world.”

You might say that a name is just a word. However, it gains power when it becomes symbolic and meaningful, ascribed by us. The same principle applies to strangers; until we meet them and share experiences that forge emotional bonds, these individuals remain inconsequential to us, just another person with a common name, like “Peter,” for example. But how many of us refrain from naming our child “Peter” due to a negative memory or association? So is it just a name or something more?
In many legends and fantasy novels, knowing an entity’s true name grants power over it. This may explain why names are not given lightly in Asian culture and why Americans, at times, simply use names, which can carry as much power as an entire conversation. Even in Christian culture, exorcism rituals often involve discovering the demon’s true name, as the priest cannot expel it from a person’s body without having power over it. Names function like magical spells because they hold power and are strongly connected to our true selves. So, I leave you, dear readers, with the contemplation of the words we use to address ourselves, whether in our thoughts or spoken aloud. Do you remember your name, and are you capable of finding your way back home, or are you wandering in search of it?

Organize your life.

The first publication in the Untold product series, created to share methodology for organizing everyday life, cultivating systematic discipline, and developing proper habits. Drawing from the author's experience, knowledge, beliefs, and commonly available coaching tools, she aims to inspire you to take action and present you with a straightforward approach to achieving fulfillment and building self-esteem. Written in a simple way, it contains examples from everyday life, practical tips, exercises, and beautiful graphics. Available in e-book and audiobook.

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