Language, Symbols, and Self-Understanding
A reporter once asked two men at the construction site where a church was being built what each did for a living. The first man replied: “I’m a bricklayer.” The second said: “I’m building a cathedral!” How we name an experience largely determines its meaning.
There are various languages within a language, and some speak more deeply than others.
Thirty years ago, the American Educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a book entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. This was his thesis: Our language today is becoming ever more empirical, one-dimensional, and devoid of depth. This, he submits, is closing our minds by trivializing our experiences.
Twenty years earlier, in rather provocative essay, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff had already suggested the same thing. For Rieff, we live our lives under a certain “symbolic hedge”, that is, within a language and set of concepts by which we interpret our experience. And that hedge can be high or low. We can understand our experience within a language and set of concepts that has us believe that things are very meaningful or that they are quite shallow and not very meaningful at all. Experience is rich or shallow, depending upon the language within which we interpret it.
For example: Imagine a man with a backache who sees his doctor. The doctor tells him that he’s suffering from arthritis. This brings some calm. He now knows what ails him. But he isn’t satisfied and sees a psychologist. The psychologist tells him that his symptoms are not just physical but that he’s also suffering from mid-life crisis. This affords him a richer understanding of his pain. But he’s still dissatisfied and sees a spiritual director. The spiritual director, while not denying him arthritis and mid-life crisis, tells him that this pain is really his Gethsemane, his cross to bear. Notice all three diagnoses speak of the same pain but that each places it under a different symbolic hedge.
The work of persons such as Carl Jung, James Hillman, and Thomas Moore have helped us understand more explicitly how there is a language which more deeply touches the soul.
For instance: We see the language of soul, among other places, in some of our great myths and fairy tales, many of them centuries old. Their seeming simplicity masks a disarming depth. To offer just one example, take the story of Cinderella: The first thing to notice is that the name, Cinderella, is not an actual name but a composite of two words: Cinder, meaning ashes; and Puella, meaning young girl. This is not a simple fairy tale about a lonely, beaten-down, young girl. It’s a myth that highlights a universal, paradoxical, paschal dynamic which we experience in our lives, where, before you are ready to wear the glass slipper, be the belle of the ball, marry the prince, and live happily ever after, you must first spend some prerequisite time sitting in the ashes, suffering humiliation, and being purified by that time in the dust.
Notice how this story speaks in its own way of what in Christian spirituality we call “lent”, a season of penance, wherein we mark ourselves with ashes in order to enter an ascetical space in order to prepare ourselves for the kind of joy which (for reasons we only know intuitively) can only be had after a time of renunciation and sublimation. Cinderella is a story that shines a certain light into the depth of our souls. Many of our famous myths do that.
However no myth shines a light into the soul more deeply than does scripture. Its language and symbols name our experience in a way that helps us grasp the genuine depth inside our own experiences.
Thus, there are two ways of understanding ourselves: We can be confused or we can be inside the belly of the whale. We can be helpless before an addiction or we can be possessed by a demon. We can vacillate between joy and depression or we can alternate between being with Jesus ‘in Galilee’ or with him ‘in Jerusalem’. We can be paralyzed as we stand before globalization or we can be standing with Jesus on the borders of Samaria in a new conversation with a pagan woman. We can be struggling with fidelity in keeping our commitments or we can be standing with Joshua before God, receiving instructions to kill off the Canaanites so as to sustain ourselves in the Promised Land. We can be suffering from arthritis or we can be sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane. The language we use to understand an experience defines what the experience means to us.
In the end, we can have a job or we can have a vocation; we can be lost or we can be spending our 40 days in the desert; we can be bitterly frustrated or we can be pondering with Mary; or we can be slaving away for a pay check or we can be building a cathedral. Meaning depends a lot on language.