This is an excerpt from the book I’m writing for my son, which will tell the story of his name, his beginnings, his birth, and his childhood. This section discusses how we decided on his name, and what we hope it will come to mean to him.
You will have heard it since before you were born. It will be murmured to you while you sleep in our arms, it will be said through laughter when you’re being funny. It will be spoken to you in times of trial and triumph, when people seek you for answers or advice. You will struggle to scrawl it in crayon as a toddler. You’ll sign it to your best work in school. You’ll craft a signature that will seal love letters and life events. It will be ever-present, leading people to you and representing you to the world. Your name will be the title of your legacy.
As you grow, you will reflect on who you are, what you mean in the world, and what your name stands for. Your mother and I, accordingly, took your naming seriously, and wouldn’t simply name you something that “sounds good”. We hope you will draw strength and inspiration from your name and the stories and meaning behind it.
We certainly do.
Your first name comes from Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, thinker, activist, and spiritual leader. His stories and fables have been read to you since you were growing in your mother. His words will be quoted to you and lessons from his life will be taught to you.
Most people know Leo Tolstoy only as the author of two great novels: War and Peace and Anna Karenina. While we love his novels and his voluminous other works, we did not name you after him because he is a great writer. Leo Tolstoy embodies several traits that we hope to help you develop.
He was, from the time he was very young, interested in self-reflection and self-improvement. As a teenager and throughout his life, he obsessively wrote Rules for Life. He held himself to a high standard of moral conduct, and while he was deeply imperfect in following his own rules and commitments, we admire his devotion to right living.
Leo Tolstoy was a fearless advocate for what he believed was right. He often got into trouble with the government because of his opposition to the status quo. He wrote essays like “I Cannot Be Silent”, opposing the death penalty, and “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” about the peril of alcohol. His doctrine of nonviolence, outlined in “Letter to a Hindu”, inspired a young Mohandas Gandhi. In A Confession, Tolstoy writes of his crisis of faith with breathtaking honesty, refusing to soften or turn from the truth, even though it would lead to his very public excommunication from the Orthodox Church. This same honesty is characteristic of all his writing; Leo always chose the right word to say things as they had to be said, without ornamentation or hyperbole.
Leo Tolstoy was born extremely wealthy, heir to a tremendous fortune. However, because of a transformative experience in his youth, he became dedicated to the poor, and worked to improve the situation of the peasants of Russia. He worked alongside the peasants on his land, and advocated for the abolishment of serfdom. He opened a school for the peasant children, and wrote textbooks and primers that were used all across Russia. Toward the end of his life, he made efforts to abandon his property and the rights to his writing, wanting to give them over to the public domain. We hope that you learn from this to be critical of your situation, responsive to your experiences, and willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Leo Tolstoy taught the highest ideals, though he was (as we all are) imperfect in living them. He was, especially toward the end of his life, a deeply inadequate husband and father. This may have been due to the extremely public and high-pressure nature of his life, and to the personal stress he put upon himself to live perfectly and greatly. We hope you will learn from his failures as well as his strengths, and we hope you will understand that you can learn from and be inspired by imperfect people, for we are all imperfect.
Leo Tolstoy said in his letter to Gandhi, “Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.” He believed that Christlike love was the answer to all society’s problems, and a failure of that love was their cause. You will live your life in a tumultuous time; one that Tolstoy could not have imagined. We hope Tolstoy’s teachings will guide you to respond to crises and challenges with love, above all. The world will tell you to be angry, to be violent, to be harsh, to judge, to take, and to hate. We hope your name inspires you to be happy, to be peaceful, to be soft, to be tolerant, to give, and to love.
Your first middle name comes from your grandmother—my mother—Claudia Berdan. Not from her name, but from her heart. Ever since I can remember, I heard your grandmother talk about Mount Rainier, in our native Washington State. Driving out of our neighborhood, she would look out into the distance and say, “Wow, the mountain is just stunning today!” It is an iconic memory for me and an inseparable part of my wonderful mother. Not until your mom and I went to Mount Rainier National Park in 2015 did I fully appreciate and admire that part of her and of my home state. It is a glorious place that we hope to take you to early and often.
Mountains in literature, religion, history, music, or myth are a symbol of strength, permanence, wisdom, power, faith, purity, escape, challenge, and determination. In the book of Exodus, for example, Moses ascends a mountain to receive instruction from God. The great naturalist, John Muir, climbed Mount Rainier in 1888 and said that he considered it “the noblest” of all the many peaks along the Pacific Coast. He wrote of his climb,
“I hardly know whether I had better try to describe the view but will say that for the first time I could see that the world was round, and I was up on a very high place. The air was very light… I stood there all alone, everything below and all so grand. I had never before had such a feeling of littleness as when I stood there and I would have stood there drinking in that grand sight, but they wanted to go, so we started down.”
A mountain provides perspective. As we confront a challenge and achieve the summit, we can see the world—and ourselves—better. We believe your grandmother can be the same for you. She and her example are as strong, permanent, and faithful as the mountain she loves. She will challenge you, teach you, sculpt you, and inspire you. You can come to her, like Moses, and receive wisdom and revelation. She always has been, and ever will be a beautiful sight, more beautiful the more clearly you see her. Our hope is that the name Rainier will forge a bond for you with your grandmother, her legacy, and the mountain she loves.
Your second middle name is shared with Grandpa Karl. It’s the maiden name of his mother, Great Grandma Barbara. Her family name has a powerful history. In 1881, Henry Eates Greenland emigrated from Somersetshire, England to Carbon County, Utah, drawn by the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. He and many of his descendants worked in the coal mines of rural Utah. The Greenland family has been a stalwart line of good, gospel-centered people from Henry down through your Great-Grandmother Barbara and Grandpa Karl. We are honored to continue that name and legacy in our family, through you.
We hope that the name Greenland connects you to your grandfather and inspires you to learn from his example of kindness, warmth, and humility. He will impart to you, over the years, his love of the natural world, including trees, flowers, birds, and animals. We hope you also acquire his pure, devoted heart, his inquisitive nature, and his eager smile.
The name Berdan forges the link between you and the rest of our immediate family unit. Out in the world, a family name has meaning, power, and consequences. A name grows in public regard or notoriety by the actions of its bearers. Family members’ actions reflect on the rest of the family, and members can be blessed or can suffer because of a family name. Your mother and I try to represent our family well by living lives of goodness and decency, devoted to love, faith, learning, and the passionate exploration of all the good things life has to offer. As you grow, we will try to teach you by word and example what our name stands for. All of our accomplishments and actions contribute to what our name represents in the world. We are excited to watch, over the years, as you shape the shared legacy of our family name.