How we confuse symbols and things
It is no accident that modern education doesn’t teach the distinction between symbol and thing
But in the meantime, most “educated” people cannot tell the difference between a fact and an idea, the most common confusion of symbol and thing. Most believe if they collect enough facts, this will compensate for their inability to grasp the ideas behind those facts. And, because of this “poverty of ideas,” most cannot work out the simplest conceptual questions, such as “why is the sky dark at night?” (unless you are in a small minority, the actual reason is not what you think — see more here ).
As a result of this educational deficit, our individually inspired sense of well-being, our direct participation in those actions that assure our continued survival, our sense that we must create our own reasons for living, have been replaced by a kind of conceptual totalitarianism,
I am sure there are many definitions for the term “consumerism,” here is mine: consumerism is the voluntary suspension of disbelief in the value of material goods . In the grip of consumerism, we respond to advertisements for products without once asking “if this product is so valuable, why do they pay to advertise it?” This is an everyday statement of a well-established principle in advertising — things of real worth are generally not advertised. Sometimes an advertisement is designed to persuade you to switch between one worthwhile thing and another (or one worthless thing and another), but no one pays simply to make you aware of a worthwhile thing. What’s the point? You already know there are cans of oil, coat-hangers, Pez dispensers. No one needs to tell you this.
But those caught up in consumerism lose this perception. They actually think responding to advertising makes them better people. In this way, consumerism is a confusion of symbols and things raised to a higher power — we respond to an advertisement for a symbol, then the symbol (the product) turns out not to represent the thing (value). Then the entire process repeats.
For people possessed of common sense, the cure for consumerism is simple: overexposure. The more you do it, the quicker you recognize that consumer products are symbols masquerading as things. But for those not endowed with common sense, consumerism can be addicting, in the same way that marriage, government and religion can be.
For a more complete treatment of this subject, read Consumer Angst .
Today marriage (the symbol) has become a thing in its own right, in some cases (and in some minds) replacing the thing it once only represented. It has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and only the most perceptive individuals remember that it was supposed to have symbolized something more important, more fundamental than itself — a particular kind of human relationship. This reversal of symbol and thing has become so profound that one commonly hears a remark like “Marriage is what I really want!” as though marriage were anything more than a weather forecast or a road sign.
Naturally enough, this confusion of empty symbols and actual things has led to a rather well-documented disenchantment with that institution, even though the disenchantment is based on an error in perception. The reality of a human relationship between people (usually) of opposite sexes is quite different from the packaged perception called up by the word “marriage,” to the degree that people often forget that they will have to build the thing (a human relationship) after achieving the symbol for the thing (marriage).
Then, after people waste precious time seeking “marriage” and discovering that marriage is nothing by itself, they complain they have been failed by “marriage.” This is advanced puppetry, and no one seems willing to follow the strings.
But marriage itself (as it is practiced in modern times), by virtue of having taken on a life of its own, is in its turn a symbol for something more basic: We live in a time where symbols for things have largely replaced the things themselves , and this tendency exists in direct proportion to people’s inability to distinguish between symbols and things.
Modern governments are to the efficient solution of common problems as modern marriage is to natural human relationships — in both cases, there is only a superficial resemblance, and in both cases, what was once a symbol has become a thing. Government has become so much a thing unto itself that it is now essentially separate from human society, to the degree that governments regularly pass laws and collect taxes in the interest of, and for the furtherance of, government itself — laws and expenditures having nothing to do with the interest of the people the governments were originally designed to serve.
One might think, reading my harsh indictment of government, that I must side with those who blow up government buildings. Nothing could be further from the truth — in fact , every fruitcake that blows up a government building thereby assures an increase in governmental power . This is because government’s effects are mostly out of sight (and mind), and to an average person those effects are benign compared to the wholesale slaughter of innocents whose only mistake was to be near (or in) that day’s randomly selected building. This is a fundamental truth that Mahatma Gandhi recognized, but that we have largely forgotten — violent opposition is the bread and butter on big government’s table.
The real solution to excessive governmental power is education. People must learn the difference between a symbol (government) and a thing (effective group action), and they must come to believe in themselves and the natural value of individual experience. If people educate themselves to the point that they realize their own power and capabilities, huge governments will lose their audience. And make no mistake about it — big government isn’t just like show business, it is show business: no audience, no show.
In a “natural system,” an idea or a group must justify itself or dissolve — it cannot simply enforce its continued existence without proving its value. If this natural law were to be broken, if an idea or group was allowed to exist without continually showing its worth, then nature herself would step in and extinguish that group — or, if necessary, the species to which that group belonged. This would happen because a natural system is defined by constant scarcity and fierce competition between individuals, groups, ideas, and methods.
Some will argue that the natural system I describe is brutal and unnecessary — it has little to do with modern times, and going on about it constitutes worship of the primitive. But I maintain that we must study natural systems and apply what we learn, because no matter how “advanced” we become, we will always be ruled by nature.
How do I mean this? After all, we in America appear to be completely divorced from the requirements of nature. We have more than we need, we don’t have to struggle to survive (even though we go on endlessly about our “struggle,” usually to get more of what is already enough). But we do this by setting up a special, unnatural relationship with nature — instead of experiencing nature directly, we have created a hierarchy of experience. Those at the “top” of the hierarchy of experience see nature on television (and on the Internet). In particular, we see natural laws played out in the lives of the modern proletarians, people whose job it is to create a cheap labor pool and then die quietly, gracefully, without objection.
The modern proletarians, both in America and elsewhere, represent the “bottom” of the hierarchy of experience (as Americans see it, anyway). They experience the modern version of a natural food chain, with (for example) blue-green algae at the “bottom” and humpback whales at the “top.” And this is how nature reasserts herself in the most modern context — a technical “food chain” in which many at the “bottom” are allowed to assemble circuit boards for computers “consumed” by those few at the “top.”
The reason natural food chains don’t break down is because the creatures that make it up have no mobility — try teaching calculus to blue-green algae, or, for that matter, to a humpback whale. The reason technological “food chains” don’t break down is because in the same moment that an individual realizes his position at the bottom of the “food chain,” he also realizes he can scramble to the top (speaking as someone who did). George Bernard Shaw once described religion as “what keeps the poor from killing the rich” — our realization of upward mobility is the modern equivalent, except that it has more intrinsic truth than does religion.
Modern religion is not a concept, it is a process. You don’t evolve or sit in repose, you proceed. From the moment you encounter religion, you are in motion toward a goal. There is no rest for the wicked, because rest is itself wicked. But if you accomplish everything that religion places before you, expecting to be left alone at the end of the process, you instead discover you must go out and persuade other people to join up and commence their own process.
This is something religion has in common with Alcoholics Anonymous — after you are in remission, you must go out and find other alcoholics and “bring them in.” For AA, the real reason for this is because, without that secondary goal, the members might slip into drinking again (as recounted in a well-known, possibly mythical story). In the same way, for the religious person, without the secondary goal of proselytizing, he might lose interest in what is, after all, a rather shallow belief system.
I would like to report that religion (the symbol) once served the purpose of introducing people to a natural quest for meaning in life (the thing), only later to become distorted, but this would be disingenuous — so far as I can see, religion has always been a diversion from the actual quest, fed at times by personal selfishness, at times by a desire for power, but only coincidentally by a desire to provide a context for individual spiritual experience.
Most western religions begin their indoctrination by asserting the basic evil of individual experience and the absolute necessity of the religion itself. This is simply a convenient way to accelerate a process that replaces the thing (spirituality) with the symbol (religion).
This assertion, this statement that individual experience doesn’t count or is actually bad for you, is the most basic assertion of western religious experience. It conceals (not very well) a belief that individual experience is secondary to group experience. Thus, to the degree that it influences modern people, it is a totalitarian belief system. One person is in charge — the person who can most convincingly assert his connection with a deity.
But religion in all its manifestations can never do more than symbolize the reality of individual religious and spiritual experience. Western religions are much more worldly than many others, having debased even the symbol they are responsible for. Instructively, the sad present state of Western religion can be summed up by saying “Television is better.”
That’s an interesting test. Why not evaluate your most prized belief — by comparing it to television? In the case of Western religion, the experience is such that people prefer television. I hope you see the connection — both television (as it is embodied in America) and Western religion (ditto) promise something they can’t possibly deliver: an enriching experience. The only difference is that television provides so many colorful images so quickly that the average person finds he prefers the empty promise of television to the empty promise of religion.
The negative side is that television and religion entrain people to trust external value systems, to rely on a fraudulent report of their own needs. And in this way television is worse than religion. Why — because it has no moral compass? No — it is only because television has a larger audience. Religion has no moral compass either, contrary to common belief. Or, to be more specific, religion has had the same moral compass all along, but the moral landscape’s magnetic poles have reversed, leading religion’s travelers astray. What was sinful is now virtuous and vice versa (to use the hackneyed language of religion).
As just one example, having a large family used to be a virtue, now it is no longer so, and it is about to become “morally wrong,” if that expression can have any meaning in the minds of intelligent people. In the real world, very soon, to bear one child will guarantee the death of another child — that is nature’s math, not mine. Unfortunately, religion is using the same moral compass in the modern world that guided it through ancient times, but under nature’s law there is no permanent solution to life’s problems — we must change how we act in life, because life itself changes.
In a larger sense, religion’s power to conceal this fact (overpopulation) shows the power of symbols to conceal the very things they are meant to reveal . And, once again, it shows the inability of people (the symbol’s recipients) to see the difference between symbol and reality.
None of this is to say that spiritual experiences are fraudulent. That is a question I am not competent to answer one way or another (except for myself). Answering this question about religion is much easier — religion has validity only to the degree that we are all identical, can have meaningful spiritual experiences inside a building, listening to the rantings of someone who pretends attachment to a deity, and who needs us more than we need him.
To a person capable of original thought, religion as a belief system represents as much of an obstacle as does government — a rigid system of facts, no ideas, no openness. But the biggest threat to religion and government (as practiced in modern times) are the laws of nature, a place where constant change is more than just a fact of life — it is a requirement.
The myths Americans believe about science and scientists are almost too numerous to list — I will touch on just a few.
Science myth #1 — The purpose of science is to discover truth. Science, unlike law and religion, does not even pretend to be a source of absolute truth — and this is one of science’s great strengths. The highest product of science is not truth, it is theory — the best theory we can devise.
When practiced correctly, science is a paradoxical mixture of discipline and free-wheeling imagination. A productive scientist begins by developing a new insight into an old problem (or by posing a new question never before asked) by imaginatively creating alternatives to existing theory, then the scientist presents his findings in a way that pays respect to all the things that can go wrong when we express a new idea.
Instead of presenting a new idea by saying “I think this is true,” as one might expect, a scientist analyzes the available data and shows how well his theory corresponds to that data. And, perhaps more important, in most studies a scientist includes a number that represents the probability that his result came about by chance.
To those untrained in science, this might seem like bending over backward with skepticism, but it is actually a very efficient way to separate good theories from bad (or meaningless) ones. Here is an example. Jerry flips a coin eight times and all eight times the coin comes up heads. Jerry, who is not trained in science, says “The coin came up heads eight times out of eight, therefore it will always come up heads. I have discovered a new truth about this particular coin.”
Jerry’s friend Susan, trained in science, says “I have examined the coin, and it seems normal. Therefore it is most likely that the coin has provided a statistically improbable result. The probability of getting eight heads in eight flips is 1/256, which is unlikely but not impossible.”
Jerry scratches his head. “I studied some math in school — does your result mean that if I flip the coin again, the chance that it will come up heads in that toss is 1/512?” Susan responds “That’s called the ‘gambler’s fallacy’ — actually the chance you will get heads in any single coin flip is always 1/2. But the chance you will get all heads in a series of nine tosses is 1/512.”
This everyday situation is one reason why many people believe in extrasensory perception (as just one example). Someone will announce “I successfully predicted 12 coin tosses in a row, therefore I am psychic.” A scientist, by contrast, will ask a few questions and (as likely as not) discover either deception or a result that can be explained by everyday statistics. In the case of the psychic, typically he might discover that the person carried out thousands of experimental runs to achieve the reported result, and will then explain that if one sat through 4096 such tests, the probability of achieving 12 correct predictions in a row in one of those tests solely by chance would be equal to 1/2 (in everyday language, an “even chance”).
Or the psychic might say “Well, there was a negative result in the middle of the 12 correct answers, but I didn’t count that — I wasn’t feeling psychic just then anyway.” This is one of the ways by which science differs from ordinary human behavior — in science, you count all the events, and you don’t offer silly explanations when the data don’t meet your expectations.
This example doesn’t mean that psychic ability does not exist, or that scientists as a class don’t believe in psychic phenomena. It only means that scientists have not succeeded in producing reliable evidence for psychic effects. No self-respecting scientist would say “Psychic events are always false,” instead he would say “Show me the evidence.”
Science myth #2 — the best science comes from addressing a specific problem. When science addresses a particular problem, it is called “applied research.” When scientists are free to work on anything they care to, it is called “pure research.” And, contrary to popular belief, pure research is the source of most important scientific results.
Scientists love pure research, but politicians hate it. Pure research costs the same amount of money as applied research, but yields fewer short-term results. In the long run, however, pure research creates new fields of science and technology, while applied research can only add to an existing body of knowledge.
The laser, the computer, the transistor and integrated circuit which make the modern computer possible, television, rocketry, our present understanding of the universe, all these resulted from scientists being given permission (or giving themselves permission) to think about anything they cared to, to be “undisciplined.”
But the majority of research funds come from government and corporations, and those funding sources almost always expect short-term results — applied science. This might explain why, in spite of the fact that there are more scientists living and working today than have existed in all of human history, there are fewer fundamental discoveries being made than, say, 50 years ago.
Someone might say “That’s because everything has been discovered already” but this is certainly not the reason — there are many fundamental unanswered questions, questions waiting for creative minds. As just one example, we can describe gravity, but we can’t explain it. We can predict gravity’s effects well enough to launch a spacecraft to Mars so that it will arrive when and where we expect, but we have yet to produce a meaningful explanation for gravity and add it to our understanding of the universe. Gravity is only one of many questions modern science could address, except that no one will pay for the work — it’s too “theoretical.” So, instead of exploring nature’s secrets, we pay to find (as one $65,000 study discovered) that people who are young, rich and healthy are happier than those who are old, poor and sick.
Science myth #3 — science can only be practiced by scientists Contrary to this commonly held belief, science is the moral property of all thinking people — it is an indispensable tool for sorting out reality. Practically any activity can benefit from the application of scientific reasoning skills. Even automobile mechanics regularly apply a kind of science to their work — they replace one part, then replace another, but never two at once, so that a particular result can be traced to a single cause.
Scientific reasoning can also protect us from some of the outright stupidity of modern times. For example, let’s say an advertisement appears on TV that says “Use my $39 secret method and make a million dollars in only a few months!” A scientifically trained person will take this description of reality and place it next to several other descriptions, one of which is “If his method can make a million dollars, why is he selling it for $39?”
Here’s another good application of scientific reasoning — you see a book that tells the stories of 40 successful stock investors, all multimillionaires. The book promises to reveal their investment secrets (there are any number of such books available). But, trained in science, you consider all possibilities, not just one. You quickly realize that, if there are millions of people who invest in stocks, hundreds of them will become multimillionaires by chance alone (and hundreds of others will go broke by chance alone). You realize you can program a computer to model a stock market and investors, and, even though each portfolio is randomly traded and the computer “market” goes up and down randomly (without gradually increasing in value over time as the real market does), the program will churn out a certain number of wildly “successful” investors. You see that, in spite of the mechanical nature of the computer model (no system, no secrets, random trades), a certain number of “investors” will increase their holdings ten times over (this computer experiment can be easily performed).
This is not to say that a successful system for investing is impossible in principle, only that most have common-sense explanations, and that consistent success in the market is more likely the result of chance than genius. Also, common sense tells us if there really was a sure-fire method to win in the market, the creator of the method would be reluctant to reveal it, because most methods fail if they are widely practiced. In general, if you see a book filled with sure-fire methods (even just one), it is most likely that the author’s secret sure-fire get-rich-quick method is to sell a million copies of his book.
The general rule for a scientific thinker is to consider all explanations for an effect, not just the one that first springs into view. This works for everyone, not just professional scientists. A professional does this to protect his scientific reputation — normal people do it to protect their life savings.
In the first paragraph of this article, I asserted that education could reshape itself “to provide actual knowledge instead of the symbolic representation of knowledge.” In this section I will provide the meaning behind these words.
Modern education could serve to clarify the difference between symbol and thing, except that much of modern education depends on just that confusion — you aren’t in school to acquire knowledge, you are there to get a degree. And mistaking a degree holder for an educated person is possibly the commonest confusion of symbol and thing in modern times . Do you need proof? Okay — Dan Quayle not only went to college, he graduated .
The true goal of modern education, stripped of all pretense, is to provide a reasonable outward appearance of scholarship — this is an easy task, it can be done on a small budget, and virtually anyone can be shaped to fit into the costume. As a result, we have “educated” people who know there are three branches to the American system of government, but can’t explain why. We have “educated” people who know what inflation is, but can’t explain what causes it (more on this below).
A more direct example. Please answer this question: How many colors are there in a rainbow?
The correct answer is that the question is meaningless, because a rainbow is a continuum of colors beyond counting, including invisible “colors” called infrared and ultraviolet beyond the red and violet ends of the band. Nevertheless, questions like this are part of the present school curriculum, and a question like this one is included in the science category of the Trivial Pursuit game cards, a game supposedly designed for adults.
But even meaningful questions of this kind carry a hidden false message — education means knowing the right answers. If we have answers for all questions, we believe we are educated. We fail to realize that correct answers are only symbols that represent knowledge, they are not themselves knowledge .
In a recent interview, a corporate recruiter said “We need people who can deal with ambiguity … Schools must produce students with higher-order thinking skills, and this must be done for all students, not only for the elites.”
Corporate and business leaders complain more and more about their younger workers’ inability to deal with the ambiguity of real-world situations, and it renders young people unable to compete once they leave the classroom. This problem arises from the determinism of the present educational system — we are teaching people what to think instead of how to think .
Entertainer Steve Allen recently said, “We need a fourth R to go along with the traditional three R’s of education — Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic, and Reason.” But such an educational change would be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, because schools have never trained students to think for themselves.
The cornerstone of reasoning ability is a grasp of the foundations of academic subjects, the ideas that lie behind the “answers.” In our next example, it is not enough to know that the energy in a moving object is proportional to its mass times the square of its velocity. Memorizing this formula is only symbolic education, but knowing what it means in the everyday world can be useful — or lifesaving.
Fact 1: “The energy in a moving object is proportional to its mass times the square of its velocity.”
Fact 2: “If a car going 20 miles per hour requires 20 feet to stop, that same car going 40 miles per hour will take 80 (not 40) feet to stop.”
Memorizing Fact 1 (and many others like it) will get you a diploma. But if you don’t understand the idea behind the fact, you will not be aware of Fact 2, which could kill you.
And guess how many Americans know their cars take four times more distance to stop when they double their speed (disregarding reaction time)? Virtually none. It might as well be an atomic secret .
What conclusion should be drawn from this example?
- Fact 2 should be included along with Fact 1 in the education of American students.
- Students should be educated in such a way that they understand why fact 1 is true, and therefore any number of other dependent facts (such as Fact 2) will become obvious.
This is true about education in general, and experience in general : For each fact there is an underlying idea, and it is the idea that creates scholarship, not the fact . A fact only symbolizes a particular example of an idea. But this distinction has been lost — in modern education, we have replaced idea-based training with fact-based training.
One more example. Why is the nighttime sky dark? I want to emphasize that the correct answer to this question is known (within the uncertainty of well-established scientific theory), but practically no one outside certain narrow specialties knows that answer, including science students. This is (once again) because students are provided only with facts, and no one attempts to knit those facts into a coherent whole, neither students nor professors.
Here are some possible answers to the question “why is the nighttime sky dark?” (they are not correct):
- Because stars other than the sun are too far away to light up our sky.
- Because dust clouds out in space block the light from other stars.
The problem with answer number 1 is that there are a great number of stars in every direction, more than enough to provide full coverage of the night sky, so wherever one directs one’s gaze, the surface of a star should be lying in that direction. So, barring any other considerations, the entire night sky should blaze with the brightness of the combined surfaces of all those stars.
The problem with answer number 2 is that, over a long period of time, the energy from the stars should heat the dust clouds to the same temperature as the stars themselves (a well-established physical principle), so that after billions of years, no matter where one looked, one would either see the surface of a star or a dust cloud heated to the temperature of a star, in every direction, including the direction of our own sun.
The correct answer, according to current theory, is that the universe is expanding. There are a great but finite number of stars in an ever-increasing volume of space, thus preventing the average temperature from rising very far. In fact , for centuries the dark night sky provided the answer to a question no one knew how to ask . Click here for a full explanation
But, once again, even though specialists now know why the night sky is dark, virtually no individuals can provide this answer. We are unable to answer this or many other questions of a similarly obvious kind, we are unable to apply fundamental principles to specific everyday questions for the reason that we do not understand those fundamental principles . We suffer from a poverty of ideas.
Most Americans are educated in name only — we do not have the comprehension of ideas that would be required to think for ourselves, and we also are not trained or encouraged to do this. Not only are we unable to think creatively, we don’t even possess this expectation, and this is not an accident .
There are many vested interests that prefer us as we are — in government, religion and in corporate America. Think how much more trouble we would be if we could think for ourselves. Not only would we be much more difficult to govern (to the degree that politicians would have to explain their actions), we would be much more alert to the public stupidity that so often surrounds us.
Here’s an example — former President Gerald Ford actually persuaded many Americans to wear a button reading “whip inflation now!” Imagine this happening in a society of educated people — the immediate reaction would have been a nationwide call on government to stop printing dollars not represented by goods and services (the real cause of that inflation) and then someone would have added “those buttons you are printing — ‘whip inflation now’ — tell the lie that inflation is the fault of the private sector. Therefore, because the buttons tell a lie and are printed at public expense, they are themselves inflationary , because they expend public resources and create no new wealth.”
But, as it happened, no one said anything. The people in government were certain the rest of us would swallow the lie that we were responsible for inflation, and government was right — we did. This is why inflation can continue at the whim of government — virtually no one realizes that governmental policy is the most frequent cause of inflation .
Inflation is really quite simple — it is a measure of how many goods and services a dollar can buy, and how that changes with time. When the relationship between dollars and goods and services changes, so that a dollar buys fewer goods and services, the result is called inflation.
In most cases, inflation is caused by a governmental decision to print more dollars than there are goods and services — this is a calculated bet that the extra dollars will create a psychological effect and actually increase the size of the economy, thus making the dollars actually stand for something. But very frequently this money printing only causes private value to flow into the hands of the government (through one of several methods) or it simply causes people to lose trust in paper money.
For this and other reasons, if a change takes place so that we are motivated to learn creative thinking skills, we should not expect any help from government (although to refuse earnest help would be equally stupid). We should anticipate a lot of resistance from many quarters. But in the long run, after all the emotional reactions have expired, we will be more productive, more effective, and less prone to follow charlatans both inside and outside government. Most important, we will finally deserve the label “educated.”
And we will know why the sky is dark at night.
We see the effects of this confusion of symbol and thing all around us:
- We seek “marriage” as though that quasi-legal institution were the same thing as a worthwhile human relationship.
- We seek “education” as though knowledge could be injected into us like a vaccine without any investment on our part. Failing at this, we then trust the statements of people who possess white, rectangular sporting event trophies called “diplomas.”
- We seek “religion” as though any worthwhile answers to fundamental spiritual questions could be delivered in encapsulated form, outside the direct experience of nature.
- We trust the findings of “science” as though science’s principal value could be meaningfully delivered to people who don’t understand science (it cannot).
- We trust the wisdom of “government” as though, without direct participation by all of us, government could be anything but a dumping ground for aging juvenile delinquents.
There are many other examples. The solution to the problem is to cast away a basic precept of modern times — that wisdom can be bought and sold as though it were a toaster . It can’t be bought — it must be acquired through personal experience.
As to the question of training people for meaningful, skilled lives in the modern world, educators must begin to impart thinking skills. This means training students to know facts, but also to know the ideas behind those facts . To say it another way, educators must stop teaching what to think and start teaching how to think. This means forming a partnership with students, so the latter realize they are the most important part of the process.
There is another way of saying this, a somewhat darker way. As a species, if we decide that facts are good enough, if we abandon our pursuit of ideas, we thereby replace the human intellectual adventure with a system of fixed beliefs, and all human progress will cease. Eventually nature will deal with us as she deals with all inflexible species — we will vanish from the earth.
As an individual, relying only on facts assures that you will be marginalized — and left behind. If you think the world is just fine the way it is, then you may become a “fact consumer” and no one will notice. If, instead, you want to make a personal mark on the modern world, you must have ideas — ideas are the fuel of modern times .
When it comes to a choice about personal values, “the meaning of life,” the acquisition of wisdom, no one is an expert (which means everyone is, which means you are). There is no simple scientific, technical, or religious solution to the problem of shaping an individual human being — all an honest teacher can do is make a list of obviously flawed methods, say “these don’t work,” and then silently point toward the horizon of all known experience. Our past and present lie about us in comical repose, and our future lies beyond that horizon.
A symbol is not a sign. A sign is merely a shape, a color, a gesture, an object or a word representing something else. A “stop sign,” for example, is a red octagon with the word “stop” on it. It is a sign representing a legal mandate, a boundary for people operating vehicles through an intersection of roads. The mandate is “stop.” Come to a full stop. Then go. Wait your turn. So you don’t die. Or kill anyone. Or smash up your car and watch your auto insurance rates go from ridiculously expensive to really obscene.
Signs are functional. Useful and necessary. But the stop sign itself is worth no more than the sheet metal and paint out of which it is made.
The difference between a sign and a symbol is something first felt, and only later comprehended. Consider this illustration …
Let’s say I’m standing in front of a stop sign, holding a 12-gauge shotgun. Let’s say I’ve had enough beers to open the padlock on the cage detaining and restraining Stupid Macho Man Moron. When Stupid Macho Man Moron gets out, somebody usually goes to jail, the hospital and, sometimes, the morgue. At the very least, there are repair bills.
So, Stupid Macho Man Moron gets the idea that it would be both fun and meaningful to shoot the stop sign with the 12-gauge. And so he does. Ka-blam. Buncha smoking holes in the stop sign now. SMMM has conquered, and is king of all he surveys.
Now, if the county sheriff happens to witness this little masculine adventure, he will arrest me. I’ll be charged with wanton destruction of public property. At the very least, I’ll be fined, put on probation, made to make restitution, perhaps sentenced to community service.
But it isn’t personal. No one would be “hurt.” Disgusted, maybe. But no one would be horrified or personally devastated.
Now, let’s say you’re happily married in a great love affair. I’m over for dinner. I compliment your wedding ring. Ask to see it. You take it off and hand it to me. I get up, step out on the back patio, take a hammer out of my pocket, and smash it to bits with three rapid blows. White gold flattened. Diamonds rendered to dust.
Your mouth would drop open in a silent or not-so-silent scream. You might cover your face with your hands. Hold your stomach, straining, bending over so as not to implode. You hold the ruined ring in your hands, cradling it like a dying sparrow chick, fallen from the nest. Eventually, you weep.
In some other — but equally real — reality, I have hit you with the hammer three times.
That’s the difference between a sign and a symbol. A symbol “participates” in the thing it represents.
Now I’m ready to answer your question, S.
I’m talking about all kinds of symbols. Marriage is a symbol. Wedding rings are symbols. That collar around the neck of the priest is a symbol. Old Glory is a symbol. Hair can be a symbol (see Samson). Fire (see sweat lodges). The Alamo is a symbol. (I was in San Antonio on the day Ozzy Osbourne urinated on it. Texans reacted, well, badly. Dramatically, even.)
Only in a culture as overly rationalized and material as this one could we …
* wear the American flag as jockey shorts;
* refer to a wedding license as “just a piece of paper”;
* be absent collective rituals for grief;
* be absent collective rituals for rites of passage to adulthood;
* think it’s funny to try to make the guard at Buckingham Palace laugh;
* think potato chips and Pepsi could stand in for bread and wine;
* refer to a girl’s first menses as the arrival of “The Curse”;
* think a glowing light bulb is the same as a perpetual flame;
* ask them to mail your doctoral diploma to your house;
* dare to be impatient when stuck behind a funeral procession in traffic.
Here’s my first question in premarital counseling: “What do you want to change in your relationship on (date)?” Wanna know the most common answer? The couple exchanges a befuddled glance. One of them sits taller. Proud of this answer, mind you. “Nothing,” he/she says quizzically, as if I’ve asked a very strange question.
If your goal was to change nothing, wouldn’t it make sense that you would do nothing?
Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols.
What do you see in human experience?
C.G. Jung said that in Western civilization, the ancient office of tribal “ritual elder” was less and less occupied by clergy. Changes in modern institutional religion have turned parish clergy into administrators, teachers and fundraisers, and less and less available for the ancient symbolic functions of meaningful ritual and “testing the spirits” (discernment).
Jung believed that modern therapists were largely the default recipient of the shamanic role. This has always intrigued me and made me nervous.
I want to extend an invitation to veteran therapist/counselor types — you modern elders — who might be in earshot of this column: What do you notice? Wrap your arms around the years of individuals, couples, kids, teens and families that moved through your practice. What themes do you see in the modern human experience, either positive or negative? Put all that into a two- to six-sentence paragraph, and send it to me.
Here are a few things I notice:
* People seek redemption. Yep, regardless of religion or no-religion, people long to convert banal human experience into redemptive meaning: birth, belonging, hope, vocation, sex, pride, humility, fear, joy, forgiveness, justice, evil, anger, values, moral failure, guilt, grief, love, meaning, child-rearing, aging, death. You can see how Jung arrived at his conclusion; the list of presenting issues in therapy is virtually synonymous with the needs and hungers of any pilgrim on a religious journey.
* There is no escaping the paradox of The Individual and The Collective. Meaning, we cannot participate creatively in the wider human experience without possession of a healthy, separate self. Yet, the only way to grow a healthy, separate self is to participate in the collective.
* People are designed for relationships. Seems funny how often I remind folks of this. I think “individualism” is a near cult in America. People are surprised, made anxious, threatened, even embarrassed by their yearning for deep friendships, kinship and a great love affair. We embrace insipid mantras — or sometimes hear them from therapists who mean to encourage — such as, “You’re fine alone.” You’ll never hear that from me. Instead you’ll hear, “You’re fine enough alone.”
* Western civilization is a neurosis factory. Anxiety, self-consciousness, self-doubt. An overwhelming tendency to attach undue and largely negative meaning to self. So common is this outcome in human formation that consulting therapists will describe patients with a shrug, saying, “He’s a normal neurotic.” Meaning, he’s just like everybody else. Just like me, for that matter.
* People have answers for most of their questions. In fact, it’s uncommon for patients to ask me an honest question; meaning, a question seeking actual information about which they are ignorant. Nope, the majority of questions are rhetorical. The patient poses the “great mystery/crisis/dilemma” inquiry as a segue, a stage. Give them some room, and they will usually answer their own questions.
* Children need to be admired. They need to hear the “wow” in the voice of the mother, the father. They need to see the wonder in our eyes.
* Children are absurdly forgiving and breathtakingly resilient.
* We marginalize adolescents, yet reserve the right to complain about their despair.
* The best thing I have to say about hitting children is that it is unnecessary.
* The “nuclear family” is a ridiculous and historically unprecedented way to raise children.
* Narcissistic parenting patterns dominate the current culture of child rearing.
* As a group, we have sold ourselves a shameless bill of goods regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. We’re personally affronted when we discover that our marriage has failed to sustain “in-lovedness” and happiness. We tell ourselves that divorce and remarriage is a terrific strategy for growth and personal development. No data supports this idea.
* Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols. Said another way, materialism and rationalism rule the day, both at the cost of meaning.
* It’s not abuse that makes children — and later, adults — feel or act crazy and destructively, it’s not being allowed to have any feelings about our abuse. To be separated from the reality of our emotional reality — that is crazy-making!
We’ve come a long ways, but it remains today axiomatic: Men can’t cry, and women can’t get angry. I’m serious. Can’t tell you how many times individual therapy with a man includes helping him take grief and loss seriously. Can’t tell you how many times individual therapy with a woman includes helping her take anger and outrage seriously.