All of creation — everything around us — comes without labels. But there are people busy fixing that. I am one of them: I am a namer of things. We all are, really, although most of us don’t give much thought to the process. We begin in the earliest stages of our conscious lives. It is an important part of our development. Think of Helen Keller, deprived of sight and hearing, making the association of the substance flowing through her fingers with its name: water. Naming something is the very beginning of understanding, the handhold of all study; the rest of knowledge depends on it and follows. Even in our daily social lives, we confer the courtesy of connecting a name to a face and are disconcerted when we fail to do so.
In the natural world, the dizzying array of flora and fauna challenges our senses and dares us to put it in order. It starts with names. And so, I learn the names of whales and dolphins, birds — many birds — insects, trees, and flowers, and even the inconspicuous weeds that seem to disregard their appellations.
This is far from a simple matter. There may be a real and profound difference between the essence of something and the name that it is assigned. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. And then there is Gertrude Stein: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” How do we tease apart the thing from what it is called?
Beyond the weeds and the whales, beyond the difference between winged and staghorn sumac, names and what they represent get significantly more problematic: it is far easier to agree on the meaning of “orange” than on abstractions like “virtue,” “courage,” or “patriotism.”
And what do you call that sweet, salty smell coming off the water on a foggy night? How to describe the briefest freshet of breeze that stirs the branch that shivers the leaves? How to differentiate in a word the thrill of first love from something that describes a mature relationship? What is the word that encapsulates the pure fresh taste of water?
As I am writing this, something has happened. And by the time you read it, much more will have happened. Now — this very minute — people are dying in mortar attacks, shelling, and indiscriminate killing. What do you call peace of mind when so much of the world is in turmoil? What do you call the division that you erect between yourself and the suffering of others? How do justice, mercy, and forgiveness coexist, and if they do, what is the name of that confluence? What can “peace” mean? What exactly is “evil,” and what is the special term for its banality?
Many years ago, I was on the phone with a friend who lived a few blocks away. He reported that it was raining. I looked out my window, and the sun was shining. I thought how strange it must be to be standing in sunshine on one block and be looking over to rain in the next block. Now I know that there are gradations of precipitation, from fog to mist to drizzle to rain.
But for some things there are no gradations. Today as I walk with my dog on the beach, on a beautiful sunny fall day, some 4,500 miles away in Ukraine people will be killed in their homes, and at the same time some 5,500 miles away in Israel there are people in unmitigated agony. By the time you read this, innocents in Gaza will join the dead.
As I listen to the gentle surf here, in those places there are air raid sirens and the thudding of bombs. Lives no less precious than my family’s are to me are being lost forever. I know this is happening, this disparity of experience.
I just can’t give it a name.