This week I began a journey through Jose Saramago’s Blindness. This is the book my World Lit professor warned us was “profoundly disturbing,” and so far, I’d have to agree. The book tells the story of a city struck by an epidemic of blindness. People simply start going blind, one after the other, and instead of seeing everything black, they see everything white. The blindness seems to be contagious, only we’re not sure how or why people caught it in the first place.
Eventually the government shuts the blind people up in a rundown mental hospital, so that society doesn’t have to deal with them, and to prevent the epidemic from spreading. There is one person in the hospital who can still see: a doctor’s wife, who faked blindness so she could be shut up with her husband, rather than being separated from him. As she lies down to sleep one night, she thinks, “We shall forget who we are [being isolated like this, and blind]; we will not even remember our names.”
None of the characters in the book, in fact, have names. They are all identified by their functions in the outside world, which, ironically, has no meaning for these people any more. They are all simply blind, and shut up together. As one might imagine, the social order soon begins to break down.
Last month I read a book by Madeleine L’Engle, titled Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, in which she shares insights not only on those subjects, but on family, work ethic, living and loving. At one point she writes, “To love is to call by name, and so open wide the gates of creativity. But we forget names, and turn to labels [instead].” On the next page, she adds, “To name is to love. To be Named is to love. So in a very true sense the great works [of art and writing] which help us to be more named also love us and help us to love.”
Blindness, to me, is the story of a group of people who have lost their names and so will find it very difficult to love. It is harder to love something or someone for which you have no name. But I wonder: are we, the supposedly sighted and perceptive people of “normal” society, not in danger of doing the same thing? We label people by hair color, body type, country or city of origin, choice of hobbies, personality, religious belief. We label and so we forget to name. “He’s a computer nerd.” “She’s a music major.” “They’re a bunch of narrow-minded [insert religion here].” We paste labels where there should be names. And we forget that we are called, and commanded, to love.
Speaking to a lost and forgotten people, God says in Isaiah 43, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.” Israel had a long history of being subjugated, oppressed, controlled like so many cattle. Few, if any, of their leaders ever merited notice by the rest of the world. But the Master of the universe, Jehovah God, Himself the bearer of the most sacred Name of all, has called them by name. They are His, and He knows every one of them by name. They are not simply Israelites or members of a certain tribe or even members of a certain family. Each one of them has a name. And by calling their names, He sets them free to grow into people who can love.
I’m as guilty as anyone of labeling in lieu of loving. Too often I try to limit even the people closest to me, by virtue of their personalities or interests or backgrounds. I’ve got to remember that these people have names. They are the bearers of unique essences, which can’t be categorized or placed in a box. By naming them, and letting them live as names instead of labels, I can play a small part in setting them free – to be the people they were born to be.
The words “I love you” become infinitely more powerful, and personal, when attached to a name. And there’s nothing like hearing your name on the lips of someone you love.
May you call by name, and be called by name, today.