trying to live up to my name

originally written on June 10, 2015

By the title of this post, I’m not referring to my American (and now my legal first) name “David” as that’s a name my dad assigned me when I was 10 mostly because not many people could pronounce the name my dad decided on before I was even born, what I had considered for most of my life to be my real name. It’s not that I don’t like the name David. The instant I hear it, I perk up and instinctively turn my head towards whoever said it. “David” is a deep part of my identity now. In church and in Sunday school I learned about David the most, and my favorite book of the Bible for a long time had been Psalms, which is essentially a collection of poems and hymns that David wrote.

Even so, I don’t have an attachment to the name “David” as if it’s something I need to live up to. The name is not at all relevant to the moral value system I operate under. David of the Bible is not even close to being my favorite character in the Bible. To be able to claim Bethsheba as one of his concubines, David ended up killing her husband. His first act of prominence is in fact an act of murder (against Goliath). So tainted was his sword with blood – including the blood of one of his sons – that even the very warlike God of the Bible saw David unworthy of having dominion over the new temple to be built in Jerusalem. The character is not someone I would ever idolize or even respect. I can empathize greatly with Jobs and be awed by the devotion of Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), but David of Bethlehem that I learned about is far from who I think of when I try to fulfill the burden of living up to my name.

My Korean birth name (now my legal middle name) derives its meaning from the Bible verses Mark 10:43-44, the New International Version of which states,  “(43)Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, (44) and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” My Korean name 으뜸 (which I Romanized as “Ethm”) has the dictionary definition of: “best; greatest; first.” My dad chose this name for me for two reasons: (1) he’s very patriotic about his Korean heritage and so chose a Korean word that didn’t originate from Traditional Chinese; and (2) so that I would do my best to live up to those Bible verses in Mark, that I would become the best by being a servant/slave to all.

Many times in my life I kind of resented my dad for giving me this name. I have after all now come to conclude that if ever I have the opportunity of naming my own kid, I will never ever choose a name as burdensome as this one. In Korean culture, this word is also almost never used to name a person so whenever I was introduced to a Korean person for the first time I’ve often had the experience of the other person looking at me in disbelief, really asking, “wait, your name is what?” I suppose in American culture it’d be like coming across a person who was named “Greatest” Who would ever name their son that? Well, my dad had the audacity to do something like that when he named me, and it does at times bother me that he couldn’t have foreseen the kind of belittling I would have as a kid with a name as unique and arrogant-sounding as that.

I really do appreciate the intention behind me being named this though. It’s an intention that definitely is deeply embedded into my identity, into my personal moral values and my personal code of ethics. From when I believed my life mission was to be a Christian pastor even to this moment now when I consider myself an atheistic humanist, my life’s purpose can be captured by that duty, “you must be a servant to all.” Complemented by the fact that my parents have been in the helping professions of pastor and nurse all their lives, the meaning behind my name has continuously compelled me to take the journey of becoming a social worker.

Many times I really felt like I was failing to live up to my name. That’s majorly why I stated few paragraphs above that this is a kind of name I find much too burdensome to be assigned to a kid. The inner voice in my head – that annoying superego of mine- has always been pretty harshly judgmental, always pointing out where I could have done better, what I could have done more of, what I should be regretting. My name means the best, but ironically the meaning behind my name always made me feel like I’ll never be worthy of being considered the best at anything. That for me has always been the crazy burden of living up to this crazy name.

The meaning continues to compel me though. Now that I’ve graduated from NYU for the second time, I was able to change one of the letters that follow my name and a comma in my email signature. That felt powerful, and moreover, earlier this morning, I received the good news that I’ll be monetarily recognized in practicing those three letters – MSW. I feel like all the steps I’ve taken to get this far (and all the times I’ve stumbled in making the steps) were to live up to this burdensome name of mine. These days I feel good about it, like I’m getting somewhere, like I now have real opportunities to do more of what my name means to me, to serve and empower others most vulnerable and oppressed. To feel this good about it, looking back, was not an easy journey. Periods of unemployment and having to endure calls from Chase Bank about my overdue student loan payments were probably the most trying for me. That’s a fortunate thing; I know stories of so many people who’ve experienced circumstances so much more trying and devastating. But outside the many comparisons I could make, I’ve gone through some pivotal moments where I almost totally gave up on all of this.

So whew, I’m here now, after that, to be a social worker, primarily concerned with homelessness in NYC. I don’t care about being best or being great or any of that, but being a valued servant to others, genuinely living up to the meaning behind my name… I can’t shake that off from being my lifelong purpose. This purpose began here in NYC about nine years ago, and I feel so proud and relieved that I’ve at least come this far. But of course, this is merely the beginning of this journey. I haven’t done much yet, nowhere close to actually living up to the mission of my name. I’m still very near the bottom, and that’s just as well, because a name like this is also why I very much tend to believe in bottoms-up approach, that macro-level policies and decisions should be informed by the experiences at the micro on-the-ground level. It’s not the few leaders at the top that form the basis of an organization, but the many at the lower rungs doing the actual work. Empower the bottom and that in turn empowers everything above and thereby empowering the whole thing. I prefer a trickle-up kind of economy to its opposite, though, if I could put a bit more nuance to it, I would say that I prefer a type of flow in which the bottom, the top, and everything in between are intricately, positively connected to each other.

My name doesn’t signify to me that I must win in competitions. My dad also explained to me many times that’s not the kind of “best” he means. It doesn’t mean to be best or greatest at something. Since it’s based on two Bible verses, it has a more Christian rationale behind it – that God/Jesus considers the greatest authority one who’s most genuinely willing to be a slave to everyone in the community.” As a humanist, I don’t concern myself with the Christian-y WWJD aspect of the meaning, the same way I wouldn’t concern myself that much whether someone else sees me as being the greatest/best authority. The subject and object is myself. What my name means to me is my concern, and so ultimately it’s about what I myself consider as the greatest authority, which I partly agree with Jesus (according to Book of Mark) that it achieved through service and sacrifice, through love and forgiveness of other fellow human beings.

My post-graduate unemployment period is quickly coming to a close. I’ve had the fortune of enjoying so much free time these past couple of weeks. Over that time I’ve been watching a lot of Korean dramas. One that particularly struck me, and often had me bawling in tears was the show “The Good Doctor.” I watched the final 20th episode just yesterday, and I really loved the concluding narration.

My crude Korean-to-English translation (and my inaccurate memory) probably does not do justice to the script, but in the final minute of the final episode, the protagonist narrates, “A good doctor is a doctor who constantly wonders what kind of a doctor is a good doctor. A good doctor is a good person. However, for this person to have been molded into being a good person, s/he came to have lots of scars, undergone many painful experiences. Doctors are there to heal people of their wounds and pain, and to do so they must know the experience being hurt themselves. So I’ve come to choose to accept everyday all my painful experiences and all my current hurtful feelings. That’s all okay, as I find myself surrounded by the love of others around me who do likewise, and the gratitude of whose pain I try my best to heal.”

Though I am a social worker and not a doctor, I related so much to this. To be in the profession of helping and healing others is itself at times very, very painful. But perhaps that’s what in a way transforms us to be better at our jobs. Living up to my name for me is painful, extremely burdensome, but I’ve come to accept it, in this journey to become the best social worker I can possibly hope to become.


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