What’s In A Name?

When I was a sophomore in high school, one of the final assignments in my intro to journalism class was to write an article about the origins of our names. In my “research” for this article (if you could even call it that), I interviewed several people, including my parents and friends, to discuss the literal meanings of my name and whether or not they were fitting. At one point, when I asked a classmate I had known since fifth grade to describe me in one word, his exact words were, “You’re just… Val.” Based on his answer, I fit my name well — at least the shortened version of it, anyway.

Of course, some people call me Valerie (my full name), but if I really wanted to, I could have pursued other options as well. I could go by my first and middle name instead, or just by my middle or last name (or a variation of my last name). At different times, I’ve had friends who called me Vallie or V, and I’ve even heard of girls named Valerie who shortened their names to Ri. Ultimately, I wonder what makes us choose the names we go by, and how our various nicknames might characterize us differently.

In Sarah Dessen’s latest novel What Happened To Goodbye, the main character’s entire identity seems to change based on what name she chooses to go by. Mclean Elizabeth Sweets was known as Mclean her entire life, until her parents’ divorce that led to her attending four different schools in the next two years. At the first new school, she was the popular Eliza (a variation of her middle name); next, she was the artistic Lizbit; then, she became Beth, the extremely involved yearbook student. This allows her to get close to others without really revealing much of herself, and makes it easier for her to leave a school and group of friends behind.

In high school and college, we desperately search for some semblance of identity, even if it isn’t necessary our own. We struggle with this, and rightfully so — in fact, according to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, we face the crisis of identity vs. role confusion around this time in our lives. Some of us combat this by morphing into our friends and idols (I’ve known girls who switched from Southern belle to only-listens-to-rap to hipster within a year or so based on the circles of people they ran with), while others tried to find themselves alone.

Ultimately, while I see the appeal in Mclean’s actions (new identities means new opportunities, and not getting close to anyone means not getting hurt), I don’t think that changing your name or anything else exterior can really hide who you are inside. You may have traded in your cheerleading skirts for skinny jeans and flannel shirts, or grown a mountain man beard, or changed your name from Elizabeth to Lizzie, but you can’t as easily hide the fact that you bite your lip when you’re nervous, you have a sarcastic sense of humor and you are fiercely loyal to your friends. Your name might define you in some way (Valerie means “strong” in Latin, and I would like to think that I’ve remained strong in the face of my challenges), but when it all boils down to it, you are who you are and it doesn’t matter how you label that.

The Dating Middle-Ground

Ever since I started college, I’ve noticed two major trends when it comes to the dynamics of boy-meets-girl. When both are attracted to one another, they tend to gravitate toward one of these two extremes: either meaninglessly hooking up (however you choose to define those terms) over a certain course of time without regard for anything other than the physical, or they dive into an exclusive, very serious relationship that sometimes resembles a marriage. I’m sure each of those options has its merits, but at only nineteen years old (twenty in less than an hour!) I often wonder how good of an idea it is to stick to such extremes.

On the one hand, we’re young, and we deserve to have a good time. On the other hand, it is important for us to develop strong relationships with the people around us, and surely, committing to one person for a while would help us to do so. (After all, according to many psychologists, now is the time in our lives when we must overcome the crisis of intimacy vs. isolation.) While I agree that it’s best not to rule out anything that is ultimately going to make you happy, I do think that it’s a wise choice to consider the middle ground between these two extremes, and that is going on dates.

It’s a foreign concept for a lot of us, because our generation is so used to either (a) hooking up at a party and then occasionally seeking one another out afterward, or (b) diving into a relationship with someone simply due to a fleeting attraction. The two of you might have nothing in common, but because of a simple feeling, you’re together, quite seriously, even though you might not even know one another all that well.

Going on dates without immediately becoming a couple, however, allows you to recognize that yes, there is a connection between the two of you, and you would like to explore that further. It doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time with that person and it doesn’t mean that you have to be out with different people all the time, either. But going out with the person you’re interested in and walking around at the park or going ice skating or doing something you love — that’s how you can really get to know someone and see how compatible you are. If you realize that there’s still something there after a few dates, then you might consider an official relationship, but why not have a little fun together first before you launch into something that may not be real?

You’re young and vibrant and wonderful, so you definitely don’t have to settle for a relationship just because you feel like you have to. Be open to meeting new people — don’t just cast someone away because they don’t seem like someone you would be “serious” with — and enjoy your youth. Hopefully someday our generation will revert back to the ways of some of our predecessors, and date won’t seem like such a foreign word. 🙂