the power of symbols

Today we ask that you observe your patterns of symbolic thinking.

What is symbolic thinking?

For example, for an atheist, wine is just wine.  For a faithful Catholic, wine can, under certain circumstances, symbolize the blood of Christ.  

The human ability to think symbolically is of course what allows humans to create shared systems of language, and mathematics.  Humans share collective symbolism in mythology, religion, and stories.  It is a great and powerful gift.  

But like all powerful tools, it can be misused.

For example, racism is a manifestation of symbolic thinking gone awry.  The mind reduces a whole complex group of humans into a symbol: “The Blacks,” “The Jews,” etc.  For a racist, this symbol is associated with threatening qualities.  The process of converting whole groups of humans into simple symbols is what makes oppression and genocide possible.  It is much easier to destroy a symbol than living men, women, and children.

The human tendency to turn everything into a symbol is thus a source of much misery in the world.

Consider the “status symbol,” like a luxury car or a mansion, or even a pair of shoes.  The intense craving for such objects has less to do with the objects themselves, than with what they symbolize: importance, superiority, power.  For someone who puts a lot of stock into such symbols, but cannot afford them, the lack of ownership of such symbols creates feelings of worthlessness and shame.  It also drives destructive behavior: men often resort to crime and violence in order to acquire status symbols.  

A car is a car.  A luxury car may be pleasant to drive, but still, it is just a car.

If you remove the symbolism from a luxury car, you also remove the desperate craving for such objects, based on the false story that they imbue people with worth and power.

People often interact with other people not as humans, but as symbols.  “The Boss.”  “The Police Officer.”  “The Politician.”  “The Homeless Person.”

When you interact with other people as symbols, you dehumanize them.  You reduce an extremely complex, multidimensional entity with a soul into a flat cipher.

People do this continually, and unthinkingly.  It is a quality of the human brain, that it constantly reduces complex information into simple symbols.  While this ability is extremely useful, it can also be extremely destructive.

So just pay attention.  Pay attention to the habit of turning people, objects, and situations into symbols.

Say, for example, that you are the parent of a child whose room is a mess.  In reality, all that is there is a messy room.  But what does it symbolize?

Does it symbolize your child’s laziness and sloppiness?  Does it symbolize your lack of control over your child, or your failure as a parent?  Does it symbolize your child’s future: if he can’t clean his room, how will he succeed in life?  

What if the mess didn’t symbolize anything?  What if it were just a mess?  

Without the symbol, without the story, you would be much better equipped to actually deal with the mess in the present moment.  You would also be much less reactive and upset when talking to your child about it.

This is how the habit of turning everything into a symbol causes misery.

So just pay attention.  Try to notice the moment when someone or something in your life suddenly becomes a symbol of something else.  

A car is just a car.

A mess is just a mess.

Can you see what a difference this makes?

Question your symbols.  Especially question your symbolic understanding of other people.  

Symbolic thinking is a powerful tool.  Learn to use it wisely.