What's in a Name

One of the first rules of Appalachia is never mess with a drunken redneck.

I was reminded of this just a few days ago. It was Sunday evening around 6:30 and my husband and I had decided to take our kids up to the playground of their elementary school. Normally, we’d be at prayer meeting at this time, but today was Homecoming Sunday. We’d already spent the majority of the day at church, enjoying worship, dinner on the grounds, and homegrown music. Everyone needed the evening to decompress, and the playground and walking track sounded perfect.

As we stepped out the door to get in our van, we noticed a rusty, white Ford Explorer parked on the edge of our property. A solidly-built man in his mid-to-late forties was walking around one of our trees and seemed to be sizing it up. He was wearing cargo shorts, a dirty cut-off t-shirt, and somehow managed to have a long, straggly ponytail and a shaved head simultaneously. He was accompanied by a younger man, a copy of himself, minus the ponytail.

But I need to back up a bit.

Our property is a fairly-level piece of ground which is rare around here; in exchange, we have very few trees. Thankfully, it butts up against a piece of wooded land and extends about five feet into it—just enough for us to have a handful of trees to call our own. The first winter we lived here, one of those trees came down in an early snow storm. The leaves were still on the branches, so as the snow fell, it collected on them. This extra weight combined with the saturated ground eventually brought it crashing down. Assuming it was dead, my husband planned to cut it up for firewood after it had dried.

But that spring, it budded. Despite lying prone, the roots were somehow still intact and able to nourish it. Our kids quickly commandeered it as a clubhouse/fort/pirate ship and spent hours scampering up and down it branches like little squirrels. They’d take blankets and sheets, drape them over the limbs, and make tents. When their friends came over, the first place they’d take them was “The Tree.” And every spring, it would bud; every summer, it would leaf, and every autumn, it would turn a brilliant yellow. All while lying horizontal.

So last Sunday, as we were leaving for the playground, we were surprised to see these men walking around “The Tree.” My husband headed over to see what was going on and was immediately greeted with,

“Hey, I’m gonna cut this up for firewood.”

“Oh?” my husband replied, still trying to make sense of what was happening.

“Yeah, my boy and me are gonna cut it up.” The words floated from his lips on a stream of alcoholic vapor.

By this time I’d walked over, having told the kids to stay in the fenced area of our yard.

“Yeah,” the older man continued, “I live in the trailer on the other side of the woods and this here tree is on my property.”

I remembered this trailer. “The one with the columns at the end of the long driveway?” I ventured.

“That’s them. They got eagles on top.” He slurred, “My boy here lives just below me.” His boy stood beside him, silent and grinning.

“So anyways, I’m gonna get my chainsaw and we’re gonna cut up this tree.”

Cautiously, my husband said, “Well, it’s not dead, and I’m not sure it’s your tree anyway. Look at the property line….”

“It is mine.” he interjected, obviously becoming agitated. “There’s the stake.” He pointed to a stake that was clearly five feet into the woods, well past the base of our fallen tree. I suppose he could have been seeing double at this point, and truly did see another stake in front of the tree, but regardless, things were not progressing well.

My husband glanced over at me, and then did one of the most courageous things he could have done. In one seamless motion, he extended his hand and said, “Hey, I don’t think I introduced myself. My name is Nathan. What’s yours?”

And in this moment, he put a human face on a problem. Suddenly we weren’t simply neighbors in a dispute over a property line; we were people with names and stories.

One of the wisest things I’ve ever learned is to try to see people for who they are—as unique image bearers of our glorious God.

We are not functions and roles.

We are not problems to be solved.

We are not objects.

We are full and multi-dimensional and complex. And often, summoning up the courage to walk right up to some one and introduce yourself is the first step in knowing them for who they are. The first step in knowing them imago Dei.

In the end, we didn’t resolve anything about the tree. But by extending his hand and asking our neighbor’s name, my husband diffused a situation that could have escalated in a hundred wrong directions. He was able to exchange phone numbers, and eventually he’ll follow up with our new friend. If the firecrackers that went off at 3:30 Tuesday morning are any indication, we’re probably going to get to know each other very well in the near future.

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There are 7 Comments

Jim's picture

The ones you know on a 1st name basis make for easier life. In 18 1/2 years of the same location:

  • Next door neighbor complained that smoke from backyard fire pit wafted into their house. I had my kids extinguish  the fire (backyard fire pits are popular here in Minnesota - and we are on a 1/3 acre lot). I thought it was a petty complaint. They've since moved and my kids are gone too so not an issue
  • Another neighbor complained to me for plowing snow into the street and leaving a ridge across from his driveway. I was actually plowing my neighbors driveway at the time and while some snow did end up in the street the vast majority was pushed side to side. I did my best to push all out of the way. I told him to wait for the big (city) plow and it would be gone.
  • A neighbor behind me threw tree debris in the back on my yard. It's kind of a no-man's land back there and a bit wild. I had my wife clean up after him. But the next time it happened I had a one on one face to face and he has since discontinued the practice
  • Another neighbor kitty-corner in my back let his kids shoot bottle rockets directionlessly from his yard. Some bounced off my siding, landed on my roof, and fell into my yard. Bottle rockets are illegal in Minnesota. I drove by and complained strongly. He denied it. But it has never happened again
Ron Bean's picture

I try to do this when dealing with people, whether they are customers (my current job) or parents (my former job as a school administrator). "What's your name?" "Well (their name), I'm Ron. (Extend your hand.) Let's talk."

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

This one was a kind of micro-epiphany for me. I would never have thought of handling the situation that way, but as soon as I read it, it was like "Of course!" I've known people who seem to have a knack for diffusing hostile situations but didn't quite see how they did it. They all connect like that.

In BJU days Dr. Fremont used to say "unconditional friendliness!!!!!"   (the exclamation pts are required)

Bert Perry's picture

It's a great idea in restaurants, too.  I noticed my step-dad always referred to a waiter, waitress, or salesman/lady by the name on their tag, and thought that it had to do with his profession as a dentist.  Well, I finally asked him about it, and he noted it wasn't that at all (though he admitted it helped him remember names, which is good in dentistry), but rather that you get wonderful service when you address people by name.

Which helps a lot when you're a large family that will require a fair amount of clean-up no matter how hard you try to help the waiter, and you're not buying round after round of drinks to increase the tip.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

It's a great idea in restaurants, too.  I noticed my step-dad always referred to a waiter, waitress, or salesman/lady by the name on their tag, and thought that it had to do with his profession as a dentist.  Well, I finally asked him about it, and he noted it wasn't that at all (though he admitted it helped him remember names, which is good in dentistry), but rather that you get wonderful service when you address people by name.

Which helps a lot when you're a large family that will require a fair amount of clean-up no matter how hard you try to help the waiter, and you're not buying round after round of drinks to increase the tip.

Bert,

This is an interesting anecdote. I guess I must be in the minority, but I hated it when I was working in a service industry and a customer presumed familiarity calling my by my first name because they read it on my name tag. 

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Bert Perry's picture

Chip--don't know if you're in the minority or not on that.  I just figure that if they don't want people to address people by name, don't put it on the badge they wear.  I would guess that respectful eye contact says a lot, even among those who are uneasy about being addressed by their first name.

Maybe allow employees to simply put their last name?  Hmmm.....

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

Chip--don't know if you're in the minority or not on that.  I just figure that if they don't want people to address people by name, don't put it on the badge they wear.  I would guess that respectful eye contact says a lot, even among those who are uneasy about being addressed by their first name.

Maybe allow employees to simply put their last name?  Hmmm.....

Unfortunately, we were not asked or given an option. 

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

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