Why we need SYMBOLS and Symbolism
I have been pondering a lot on and studying symbols and symbolism for the past 2 years. Yes... 2 years.
And although I've had some profound thoughts, and some discoveries of truth throughout the study, and even the desire to really preach about symbolism, I have just a few points that I feel God is asking me to put out there.
This study emerged into my life when I felt an inner stirring to soul search about my religious faith, which involves several symbolic words, practices, and patterns.
An initial study about 10 years ago about religious symbols led me to a book called, "The Holy Temple" by master teacher, artist, and speaker, and modern day Apostle of Jesus Christ, Boyd K. Packer. This book was my first introduction to the truth that symbols are all around us and took me through the usage of symbols in religious faiths throughout time. For my purposes today, I'm going to expound that usage to everyday living and bring us back at the end, to how I reconciled myself to why symbols in my faith are needed.
I'd like to point out how often we use symbols in everyday life, that you (and I at one point) may not have thought about before.
All around us are symbols. The letters you are reading right now are nothing more than symbols. Little markings on a page in a certain shape that mean something to you. Crazy to think of them like that, but really, think on this for a minute. Why is an "s" a "s"? Who said that a curvy little line meant the hissing sound that comes from putting our teeth together and blowing slowly with our tongue lightly lifted? Weird to put that together, right? But if you pull symbols apart, you can see just how easily we've come to accept a rather large set of instructions put into a symbol= to simplify things. And this practice has been done forever. Since the beginning of record keeping. We see the Egyptian markings and they are ALL symbols meaning something larger and more complex. We see cave drawings by the ancient humans that are ALL symbols meaning something more than just a drawing. A full story or ceremony that meant something bigger.
Why do you slow down when you see a red hexagon with white lines on it while driving a vehicle or walking down a sidewalk? What does that red hexagon mean to you? Danger? Caution? STOP?
It is yet another simplification- a SYMBOL to help you perform a large number of actions for a reason. What if we could just pull out all the stop signs because we have seen them for awhile now (since the 1930's or so anyway)? Every driver should know that when you come to another street you should slow down and thoroughly look both ways, right? Thats what our feeble human brains would like to think. For about 5 minutes. Maybe. Until the time we DON"T remember and cause an accident. This particular symbol is a very simple and profound example of how a simple color, shape and type setting can cause the entire world to take a series of actions. Cool, right?
It was a bit of an epiphany to me as I started this study.
Friends- I don't know about you, but as a parent it has become extremely clear to me how often our human minds need reminders. Please tell me you get me on this. How often do our kids need reminders? And guess what my friend- it doesn't end at the age of 18.
NEWSFLASH---- adults need reminders all the time too. (Just do a google search on "why human brains need repetition and you'll get clued in.) It is a weakness of the human brain. It is known. Hence.... symbols all around us. I need reminders all the time as a mom and just an adult human with lots of goals and dreams! Why does the iPhone have reminder apps? Why do we need an alarm to wake us up? And how does the whole world know that the word "snooze" means an extra 10 minutes? Just a few more everyday examples- but It's a symbol again, that means a series of actions or expectations. Because we see it all the time and use it all the time we are used to it. Symbols easily just become "normal" because we see them all the time.
Friends- symbols are ALL AROUND US. Even certain colors mean things. Certain shapes mean things. Why are traffic lights circles instead of squares? Why are they red, green and yellow? Who said red always had to mean stop and green means go? Why are SALES usually marked with a Yellow tag? Why is yellow used to bring our attention to things in marketing? Well- on that one- someone did some research on how colors affect our brains and figured this stuff out. AND THEN-----> incorporated them into our marketing to better serve our human living needs. Symbols are EVERYWHERE.
Ok- we've established that symbols like letters, colors, shapes, etc can be used to communicate a series of actions. And we've established that we can't simply remove the symbols because as humans, we have flighty brains and we easily FORGET things and have to be reminded CONSTANTLY about the correct actions to take.
But there is another area of symbolism that I want to address. Actual physical actions that mean a series of communications. Let's use the good old handshake to illustrate this.
Did you know that the handshake is actually something that goes WAY back? The human action of coming up to another human and thrusting out a hand with the fingers together with the hand in a vertical position and then looking up to the other human's face expectantly and having them then do the same thing, and grab your hand and then each of you know to bend the fingers and hold on tight and even still you are expected to then shake it up and down in a vertical motion. AND THEN---- back to the symbols simplifying things- right? Are you with me? This ritual, or series of physical actions with another human MEANS something. It has traditionally meant something as simple as "hello friend" and it has been known to seal agreements that could have pages and pages of knowledge of what that handshake meant. It can simply be a greeting that communicates that you are of a similar way of thinking- such as a work meeting. You aren't really "friends" per se, but you are in the same boat, and you acknowledge that. Crazy how this all comes from that weird human motion of sticking your hand out like I described!
Can you think of other rituals that humans continuously perform as a way of showing their understanding or preparation to another human being?
What about forming lines at booths for tickets or car registrations? What about the entire traffic system? What about raising our hands in school or during work meetings to indicate you have a question or concern or something to share? What about rolling our eyes up and back when we want to communicate exasperation or annoyance? That is weird. Is it not? What a weird thing to do! lol! I smile and laugh at some of the things I've thought of that we do ALL THE TIME that seem so normal to us, and yet they are simple SYMBOLIC actions that mean something MORE.
One point I want to make here----- is that we don't understand all the symbols that are offered to us. Our understanding is based on our knowledge. Something we can either grow or not. But the more you know, the more symbols will make sense. I don't know why the Italian people kiss each other. But I do know that if I were to google it, or go there myself I'd learn why. I don't know what any of the Chinese language symbols mean. But I DO know I could google it, or go to a library and find out. I don't know why the starts are aligned the way they are and how they stay where they are. But I do know that there is a massive study going on to find out regarding a substance in our universe called "dark matter". No one knows exactly why or how it exists YET, but they do know that it exists... even though no one can quantify it or SEE IT.
A last example- our clothes and physical appearance as symbols we offer to other humans as a communication of our state of being. This one is one that I will eventually write an entire post on- but for the purposes of this article, I would like to share that it has been studied and proven over and over that what you look like does matter in how you act and how others around you act. Human weakness? Maybe. But a symbol of your personal feelings or state of being nonetheless. It has been my experience as a health and wellness coach, that the way a person dresses always reflects how they expect their day to unfold, what experiences they anticipate having. If they anticipate a job interview, they wear a certain type of clothing and do their hair a certain way. If they anticipate being in classes all day same process. If they anticipate being domestically abused- physically or emotionally, same process. If they anticipate staying home with toddlers and babies, same process. Sometimes it is a facade- but either way, it MEANS something. When your bright and sunny 9 yr old daughter who loves glitter and pink and everything rainbows and sprinkles, all of a sudden starts preferring black and chrome and prefers the dark, something has changed, and her choices of her outside symbolic clothing and hair are reflecting the change of attitude and life goals. I have done a few little experiments myself with wearing different outfits and hair/makeup to my local WalMart on the same day to see if people treat me differently. And you know what? I myself acted differently when I dressed differently. My friends, as shallow as it seems, your outside appearance DOES mean something to other humans and more importantly, it means something to yourself. Again- this idea, this fact, needs its own post, but for now, this will hopefully work for us.
I hope you see my point. That symbols (colors, letters, shapes, clothing, words, physical actions and attitudes) are actually an integral part of our human behavior, progress, learning, impressions to other humans and OURSELVES, and in our day to day living. And we don't know everything about everything YET. There are symbols out there that we don't know or understand the bigger communication for YET.
Why did I start this study?
I was raised in a household of amazing parents who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (To learn more, go to lds.org)
Growing up I was surrounded my members of the same faith. Most of my extended family were members. Most of my community and city were members. It was literally a bubble of membership in this particular church. Thereby, their practices and lingo and dress and lifestyle patterns became my "norm."
I accepted that the teachings of this church to be absolute truth. Even some of the cultural traditions that this church practiced I took to be rooted in truth. Not understanding yet the difference between behavioral doctrine and deep seated tradition.
However, as the years have gone on and I have gotten out of that religious "bubble" that I was in, and had some life lessons to learn and some struggles that have caused some soul searching, I discovered that I wasn't so sure that all of the truths I believed were really that- absolute truth. Especially regarding the symbolism of words and physical actions (rituals if you want to call them) that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practices regularly.
In this particular church, is it taught to literally take bread and water, the Sacrament, as Jesus Christ gave often to his followers when they gathered in the New Testament. As a symbol and reminder of the commitment to follow His teachings of how to live and progress as mortal beings and to accept His atonement and advocacy with God on our behalf as fallen beings striving to get back to God after our mortal experience. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leadership advises to perform this symbol as a congregation, when we meet together. And as this time in history sees simplest, the congregations meet once a week at their chapels on Sunday to hear testimony, be taught from the scriptures in organized classes, and perform the symbolic Sacrament as a reminder of the same things Jesus taught anciently.
There are other symbolic rituals and ways of encouraging worship that the church teaches, especially in their Temples.
When this area of my study came up, at first I was uncomfortable with all the ritual and symbolism. Just like realizing how weird it is that I thrust my hand out to another human to communicate friendship and camaraderie, it was weird until I understood.
I wondered if the symbolism and rituals I had taken part in were more pagan and cult-like, than true Christ following. But when I studied the life of Jesus Christ more closely and documented all the times He taught in symbols, and performed ritualistic actions it was astounding. Of course, there is a level of faith here that will either make or break this for you- but I believe that Jesus Christ wasn't all mortal. He was half mortal, and understood the bigger picture better than we ever will in this fully mortal state of mind. Symbols are part of a bigger picture, remember? He understood symbols. He understood why our human minds needed symbols, parables, rituals as means of helping us remember important paths to stay on to have the most JOY in this mortal experience and to have a peek, a communication of something MORE. And He acknowledged that over time, as things in the world change, the processes will change. There was an old symbolic series of actions that meant certain promises that involved animal sacrifice and certain clothing and certain ways of living and worshiping that showed discipleship and foreshadowing of Jesus Christ's coming from the time of Moses until Jesus Christ came (see the Old Testament). Then during the time of Christ until the dark ages there was a series of symbolic actions that helped reminded us of the example Christ gave us of how to live in this life for the most JOY possible as part of something MORE. Then, as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830 after Joseph Smith saw a vision of God and His Son, Jesus Christ telling him that he was to restore His church, there was again a renewing of the symbols as Jesus Christ taught along with more revelation to His prophets of symbols we needed to help us in THIS time of the world as PART of something bigger.
Along with the idea of symbols and their necessity for human living and as something that is a simplified action meant to communicate a bigger picture, I was able to reconcile myself to the idea of not understanding every symbolic action or word that I do as a follower of Jesus Christ. I don't understand the entire picture. I don't know the expanse of the universe and all of its abilities. I don't understand fully what my own mortal body is capable of. And no one does that is mortal. There is a BIGGER picture my friends.
I was also able to reconcile myself with the need for changing symbols, rituals and processes as I have now seen how they have changed through time according to the scriptures and other ancient texts I have been studying on as the needs of people and their knowledge of the "bigger picture" changes. I was able to reconcile myself with the idea that my physical appearance is a message, a symbol, to myself and those around me of my state of being.
After this study- I am continually aware of the symbols around me and I have started to pick up on some that I had not even noticed before. Our world REVOLVES around the stability of symbols and rituals. It is a mortal need. And when it comes to religious symbols and rituals, they are a mortal need. Not something to be given heavy eternal value to- but something to be aware is a communication of the bigger picture that we are a part of.
I'd love comments and questions! I do NOT think this is a comprehensive study. Just my own experience so far. But something I feel others around me who are also of a faith based living, who may wonder why God has given symbols so often as part of His teachings to help us through this mortal experience.