Symbols: Meaningful or Meaningless?


1 :an authoritative summary of faith or doctrine :creed

2 :something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially :a visible sign of something invisible the lion is a symbol of courage

3 :an arbitrary or conventional sign used in writing or printing relating to a particular field to represent operations, quantities, elements, relations, or qualities

In our culture, we act as if there is only one definition of a symbol – “an authoritative summary of faith or doctrine”

That’s why we get upset when people don’t stand for the national anthem.

That’s why countries refuse to let women drive.

That’s why we fight for the right to fly the confederate flag.

That’s why we refuse, under any circumstance, to let someone encroach on our right to bear arms.

However, I think definition 3) is a bit more realistic – “an arbitrary or conventional sign..”

Symbols are just that, they are symbolic.

A narrative – that someone else created and we decided to believe in.

The problem is that our culture has forgotten this.

Instead, our society treats symbols as though they had an existence of their own independent from those that think them, even from those who first produced them.

My problem with Symbols is not as much of their arbitrary nature, but with the fact that they are fixed.

They construct boundaries.

They focus on scarcity.

They are finite.

They are based in fear. The fear of change, as the prizes won by the people who established our present-day symbols can only be protected if the symbols retain  “meaning”.

Symbols restrict freedom, not afford it, as one cannot be free by opposing another.

For example, my freedom does not depend on your loss of freedom. On the contrary, since freedom is never from society, but freedom for it, my freedom inherently affirms yours.

The paradox of symbols lies in definition 2) “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship..”.

Symbols are supposed to be “shortcuts”  that allow us to quickly identify things, yet they also act as a barrier that prohibits us from seeing the possibilities that lie outside of them – preventing us from identifying the future.

Instead of blindly following symbols we should ask ourselves:

What do the symbols that I believe say about me?

What do they say about the world I want to live in?

What do they say about what I think is important?

What can undo our attachment to symbols that we disagree with?

The awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing that is limited.

Symbols can change.

The symbols that we disagree with, that ostracize people, that divide us, that threaten our safety – those symbols, they must change.

We have the power to change them.

The challenge is learning to see.

Learning to see the arbitrary and finite boundaries that these symbols have created.

We have no choice if we want to live meaningful lives.

Whoever merely follows these symbols without questioning their value, their relevance and their impact on others are simply repeating the past and are culturally impoverished.

You see, our society cannot stand non-participation.
It cannot stand fundamental criticism.
It is this dynamic that causes the unrest in our culture.
Because when you are unsure that you are right about what a flag represents, or how people have historically been treated – you must stifle criticism and fight to retain the power of symbols…even if you don’t believe them to be true in the present context.