A Very Short Theory of Symbols
Symbols are amazing things. They rule our lives. When we overestimate their
power, we suffer, when we underestimate their power we suffer. Just what
is a symbol and why are they so important us?
(or Boxes within Boxes within Boxes ...)
© 2000 Bernd
Wechner - Please respect his efforts and avoid plagiarism (namely uncredited
copying of this page).
Symbols are all we have to communicate with one another, to share our
ideas and feelings. Deeper still, they form a great part of how we talk
to ourselves, that is, how we think, process and summarise our ideas and
A symbol is like box with a label on it. You put things into it, you
carry the box around with you. The inside of the box is very personal and
hard enough to browse through on our own, but quite impossible to share
with anyone else. The box probably has other boxes in it, with labels on
them, other symbols that is, in which case we can pull them out and share
them around - the labels anyhow, the boxes remain mysterious. It's only
labelled boxes we have for sharing, the insides are impenetrably personal.
Even the labels on boxes within boxes are obscured to us forcing us to
look long and hard to decipher them! The outer box obscures everything
Why every word you use is a symbol, nothing more, nothing less. Much
art deals with symbols, ultimately becomes symbolic even if it stood in
defiance of our addiction to symbols. Religion deals with symbols, in ways
very much more profound than most would imagine. Zen is a religion dedicated
to both the attack on and appreciation of symbols.
I love symbols. They allow me to pack a whole lot of feeling and idea
into a small box, pass it on to someone else for them to unpack in their
own way. Of course they can't unpack it can they? The insides are quite
personal. Therein lies the beauty and danger of symbols. They can only
read the label and infer what's inside, project their experiences, expectations,
dreams and desires into the box, with the label as a guide.
We can help them a little. We look inside our own box, mull around a
little, and pull out many smaller boxes, all with labels of their own.
"Ah," the receiver of boxes says, "that's what you meant!". But the little
boxes remain as mysterious as the box they were in, only their labels are
open to us, the insides remain mysterious and obscure. As ever we project
our own experiences into the little boxes as best we can, with the labels
This goes on, and on and the boxes get smaller and smaller but no less
personal and obscure. That's the game of communication, the exchange of
symbols, bouncing back and forth between us. As they bounce they pick up
meaning, shared meaning, the glimmer of understanding. It's fraught with
danger, it's enticing, it's hard work, it's fun, everything about communication
is symbolism at work. Symbolism and projection.
Enjoy the symbols around you and learn how to use them and life will
be that much more worthwhile.