the power of the symbol

Finally!  After too long of a hiatus I actually have something worthwhile to write!  It’s nice to feel the liberating power of Christmas break, but anyway…

Symbols are a powerful thing… almost too powerful.  The fact that they are so powerful is interesting, because in reality they are nothing.  Their power resides merely in social agreement.  They have the power to direct, condescend, aid in transcendence, etc.

Think of it, we get angry when someone speaks a vulgar word, or expresses a vulgar gesture.
An A+ on a paper/test is highly regarded whether or not any of the information is retained afterwards.
A diamond is a highly valued gem that is, though rare, merely a crystalline construct of tetrahedral carbon atoms.
A large bicep is understood as strength… i.e. Arm and Hammer.  Likewise, fashion.  Who makes up the laws of fashion?  Are there really any rules that make any sense beyond our social setting’s unspoken code of conduct?

Being in seminary I know the power of an A+.  This is one I experience every so often, and when I receive one there is an emotional high.  Now perhaps I see things a bit differently, because for me I’m not always necessarily striving for the grade, so when I do see a good grade I see it as affirmation that I am fully grasping the materials in the way that I am intending to.  Which I think is how grades were meant to be understood… It alleviates my conscious at least.

Of course opposite me, you have those who strive for the A+ too.  But not for any other reason to acquire the A+ and the 4.0, because its what people want to see; its a symbol that has acquired power.  It is seen and assumed that by having such a grade means one knows more, or has a more synthesized comprehensive knowledge.  However, that’s not necessarily true; good grades aren’t necessarily a true measure of one’s ability to comprehend and synthesize knowledge, merely a measure of their ability to transmit it in the way that it is grades.  Not to criticize grading, just realizing that some people don’t test well, or don’t write papers well, but if you were to converse with them you’d actually realize it.

All this to say that symbols have power and their power has a sort of control over us.
I bought my wife a diamond engagement ring because she wanted one.  Not for any other reason than it’s what one is supposed to have for an engagement ring.  She knows it’s just a diamond as well as I did.  Personally I wanted to do some other sort of gem, but she knew that people wouldn’t get it, which she would then have to explain as to why it’s this and not that.
Likewise, she got exhausted speaking about how we met, how the proposal happened, etc.
So, in this case the power of the symbol of the diamond afforded the luxury of her engagement as being understood without further explanation or questioning.

I know the power of vulgar language and vulgar symbols… it’s what starts bar fights. Not that I’ve ever been in one.  But they have the power to infuriate us, and we use them to degrade and anger others.  If I hit my finger with a hammer, I don’t say “golly geez whiz”  I say another more “colorful” word, because we understand it as expressing the moment more aptly.  Yet it really is just a word, no different from any other organization of consonants and vowels.  Why don’t I exclaim “THAT!” when I hit my finger?  The only thing differentiating “that” from “shit” is the symbolic vulgarity that we assigned to the word, “we” being society.
I suppose this is where “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me” comes from.   The reasons words will never hurt me is because they are words, not stick nor stones, or even a bullet.
However, words do hurt… they hurt a lot.  Even though someone may understand language to merely be symbolic, it really doesn’t give them the excuse to use language carelessly.  Because the society in which they operate does not necessarily see things the same way.  Its why America has the FCC with its censoring powers.

Because most people don’t see beyond the symbol, one can’t simply exercise their own freedom.  When one does ignore the symbolic world it drives them to be a social outcast, or at least looked at weird.
I remember high school, (much like everyone does) but specifically I remember how apathetic I was towards high school culture: cliques, fashions, social faux pas, unspoken taboos, unspoken hierarchy, etc.  Of course that didn’t win me any popularity contests.  I meandered in and out of social groups, wasn’t concerned with whom was whom, or whom was with whom, fashion was (still is) all for show and was only important because that’s what “he” or “she” wore.  Was I a social outcast?  Definitely.  People didn’t “get” me, because there was a barrier there that could not be surpassed by anything else other than a different understanding of symbolic worlds.
In the same way it’s hard for an analyst to enjoy the Ohio State/Michigan with an Ohio State fan; the Ohio State fan simply can’t connect to the analyst because an awesome touchdown pass for the analyst is a devastating defensive blunder for Ohio State.  So it is for someone who buys popular fashion because it’s what their friends wear and what girls want them to wear.  The crowd has a hard time connecting to someone who couldn’t careless where their clothes come from, so long as they enjoy the look and feel of them.
In my high school experience the power of the symbol led people to socially ostracize me, because I didn’t play by the rules.

So even though I can see symbols at work and see them as symbols, I am still forced to abide by their power to an extent.  If I don’t people might get testy.  It’s an enslaving sort of power, because I don’t want to abide by the symbols yet have to.  Others abide by the symbols simply because they don’t know any other power to abide to.
Ultimately there’s no nice and tidy solution other than to learn to balance the different worlds and to engage with the symbolic world with love, not condescension.  When I become a pastor this will be a necessity.
The balance, unfortunately, is never easy, because I have to be honest with my own convictions of how the world works and how people are better off living into that, but I also have to be understanding that if someone thinks that buying a $100,000 Porsche leads to happiness.  I can’t call them an idiot (even though they are, because we all know money cannot buy happiness, nor love.  Likewise happiness is “two kinds of ice cream and knowing a secret”), or preach to them, or chastise them; I will need to allow them to waste their money while working with them gently to help them see beyond the empty emotions found in having “things”.
Paul speaks about this to the early Christians, in order to truly love someone one doesn’t go about immediately fixing wrongheadedness, but allows them to grow into the same worldview of Christ that they hold.  I am to allow the symbol to hold power over me so that I do not hurt the other; it allows me to engage them where they are.  However, all the while  knowing that not only does the symbol not have power over me, but I am using the symbol’s power for the purpose of freeing the individual from the symbol.  I am ultimately enslaved to Christ and love for the purpose of freeing others from the world of symbols.

It seems so simple…


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