Why We Need Symbols

Why We Need Symbols

In 2005, I was given the opportunity to help write a book that I thought would be way beyond my interests. I was wrong. I said “yes” and with my friend, James Wagenvoord, we wrote and edited MIAMI INK: Marked for Greatness. The book echoed the television show that explored not only the lives of the artists, but more importantly those of the customers who came into their shop in South Beach Miami. Each person wanted a tattoo for a particular reason: remembering. When they looked at the tattoo and proudly wore it, they were remembering a loved one, a choice, an event. The tattoo was a symbol. Sonya, the mother of a child who had died, asked Kat Von De to create a tattoo of her daughter holding a pet alligator. One man wanted his wife’s face and name on his back, because “she has my back.”

KNIVES AND INK: I WANT TO REMEMBER WHERE I CAME FROM

Isaac Fitzgerald, who got his first tattoo when an encouraging teacher offered it as a reward, has published “Knives and Ink”–knives, because the people in his book are chefs. I’ve noticed that many chefs boast tattoos, and his book focuses on the narrative or story behind each of those tattoos. For Chef Soliel Ho, who has a paddy crab on her chest, the crab is the food that sustained rice farmers in Viet Nam where she was born and raised. She states: “It’s important to me to remember where I came from and the humble food that still sustains and satisfies people everywhere.”

SYMBOLS ALL AROUND US

Of course a basic symbol many of us wear is a ring–engagement, wedding, promised–or one we purchased ourselves to remember a place we visited or because it reminds us of someone we love. The symbol can be very tangential, “My mother had a stone like this. It’s gone, but now this ring with the same stone will remind me of her.”

Symbols have been with humans forever. They communicate important aspects of our lives: the country we live in and the religion we follow. We communicate that through clothing, flags, medals, headwear. Adornments on our bodies offer symbols of our place in society, our wealth or education, position or life work. Various peoples throughout the centuries have chosen to wear their hair or adorn their skin to communicate place or station, power or caste and definitely heritage.

SUN AND YOUR SKIN 

Skin color and all its shades have made we humans colorful and various–melanin is the reason. Melanin is a dark brown to black pigment that occurs in the hair, skin, and iris of the eye in people and animals. It is responsible for causing skin to tan or darken when exposed to sunlight. The closer people on earth live to the equator, the darker their skin. Melanin protects skin from burning and wrinkling and often from skin cancers.

In past centuries, women living in more northern areas chose to stay out of the sun. Tanned skin indicated a lower station, a person who worked in the fields or walked long roadways to get to their place of employment. Many decades later tanned skin came into vogue and was viewed as a sign of health. Self-tanning products and tanning beds were all the rage. We now know that tanning beds and unprotected skin can lead to burns and skin cancer. Thus for most skin types it’s better to purchase sunblock and a sun hat. Let’s face it, we humans are changeable, but in the last analysis we would be much better off if we saw skin color as symbolic only of the fascinating and numerous peoples who live on our earth.

SYMBOLIC CONSCIOUSNESS

Symbols are quick and easy. From drawings on cave walls to emojis, we humans are eager to communicate how we feel, where we live, how we live, where we are headed. In a recent article, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee defines symbolic consciousness: a way of working with symbols that allows their meaning and energy into our consciousness. It is like a key that is needed to unlock the real potential, the energy of a symbol. He sees the Internet as a symbol with very positive potential.For example, if we are attentive to the symbolic dimension of the Internet, we will find that it conveys a promise of a new model of global consciousness, an interconnectedness whose organic nature reflects the organic nature of life.

That’s a positive view, one that might arise if we could all find interconnectedness in our goals, if we could all set aside fears and make plans to walk together into the future. The economic needs of people never seem to even out. Some have much more money than others and often those that do simply crave more. So when various people in the United States look at the American Flag or the Statue of Liberty, what they see and what they feel and what that symbol communicates can be vastly different.

IS THERE COMFORT IN NEGATIVE SYMBOLS?

When people are afraid, they often hide behind the shield of a symbol. During the stress and nastiness of this past presidential election, the focus was often on making one candidate or the other a SYMBOL of something, something evil or bade. NASTY WOMAN. BASKET OF DEPLORABLES.

Both candidates were guilty. But one candidate did a deserve to himself as a man and to all women: he ran against a woman trying to uphold male dominance, to make women a symbol of inferior brains, lack of proper behavior, lack of strength and character, and who are not capable of making their own healthcare choices. He also applied that to handicapped people, people of color and people not like him.

I’ll end with the words of Rebecca Solnit, taken from her article in the Guardian: Don’t Call Clinton a Weak Candidate, It Took Decades of Scheming to Beat Her:

I know that if Clinton had been elected there would not be terrified and weeping people of color all over the country, small children too afraid to go to school, a shocking spike in hate crimes, high-school students with smashed dreams marching in cities across the country. I deplore some of Hillary Clinton’s past actions and alignments and disagreed with plenty of her 2016 positions. I hoped to be fighting her for the next four years. But I recognize the profound differences between her and Trump on race, gender, immigration and climate, and her extraordinary strength, tenacity and courage in facing and nearly overcoming an astonishing array of obstacles to win the popular vote. Which reminds us that Trump has no mandate and sets before us some of the forces arrayed against us. Rebecca Soling          

Women are and will always be Symbols of Strength. 

Thanks to THE WRITES OF WOMEN for compiling amazing essays.

Photo: 3D Tattoo Design

6 thoughts on “Why We Need Symbols

  1. Awesome read! Symbols have been helping us along in so many ways and for so many Centuries. To honor a loved one … To remind us of the things that make us smile … To help us celebrate our own uniqueness … Symbols are – without a doubt – an important part of ALL cultures. While we may not all speak the same language, everyone understands symbols. Thanks for writing this!

    • Mona, your comment is so welcome. The piece kind of wandered, but there is so much to say about symbols and you added some great reasons that we have them. Thanks, Beth

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