This weekend a seminarian came to our church to start his year long spiritual internship as it were. At the end of the mass he stood on the altar and after introducing himself he said, “I’ll be at the back of the church and would like to meet all of you personally . I won’t remember all of your names but over the next year, I’ll try.” If it had been me saying that I would have made it “I won’t remember any of your names but over the next year I’ll forgot the couple that I accidentally had remembered. And it will probably at the absolute worst time.”
You see, of all the billions of data that I’ve committed to memory over all the years that I’ve been exposed to data, I can remember almost all of it, from every important work piece to the most useless of useless trivia. Except names. I tried all of the memory tricks. Use somebody’s name three times in the first 10 minutes of being introduced. Associate the name with some physical characteristic. Build a mnemonic that describes where and when you met that person. None of it worked. I even tried doing what I did to remember the billions of data that I did remember and is rolling around in my head. I just remembered. But it seems I’ve never been good with names. Why, it took me almost 4 years to learn my own mother’s name. And that’s most surprising since almost everybody’s mother’s name back then was Mommy.
So how did I manage to go through life with such a disconnect from the most personal of other people’s personal information? I guess I always had cheat sheets around. While in the army, everybody wore their name above their right pocket. As long as I didn’t mind to appear to be somewhat not all quite focused I could pass my eyes over their collar looking for rank, down to their pocket for surname and in one almost smooth motion would greet Captain Hook. In the hospitals and other medical facilities everyone wears name badges. Except for the few who inexplicably wore their identification cards on the hems of their shirts or jackets it was easy enough to spot the picture card and zero in on the name. At the college the entire clinical faculty was into wearing white jackets with their names stitched above the breast pocket. Except me. I didn’t care much for wearing consultation jackets while standing at the front of a lecture hall. It struck me as the same useless gesture as those who wear scrubs in a hospital yet never move from their desks in the administration wing except to go home.
When I didn’t have a visual cue to jolt me into name recognition I relied on the old standby. Everybody became “sir” or “ma’am.” Actually, that worked out quite well in my career ladder climb. People to whom I reported liked that I call to them with such politeness while everyone else junior to them tried to feign familiarity by beginning each conversation with “Well Bob,” or “If you have a minute Sue.” As I rose to have more who reported to me I continued with “sir” and “ma’am” and endeared my staff to me with my gentility while other department heads routinely referred to their crew as “the minions of 4 Central” or some similar certainly meant to be cute appellation.
So, my advice to you if you should ever become a seminarian assigned to your pastoral learning experience and don’t think you can remember everybody’s name before your year is up, do what I did. Don’t try. Make them all sirs and ma’ams. They’ll appreciate the courtesy. Or, you can just think of them all as useless trivia and you can probably commit a few billion names to memory. Just don’t let the pastor find out.