Living Symbols

I came across a new word recently in a New York Times article entitled “A Public Exit from Goldman Sachs Hits at a Wounded Wall Street.” You may have heard of it, but I certainly had not. The word is: shibboleth.

The word has several shades of meaning, but the one I find most intriguing relates to instances where the original meaning of a symbol has been lost and the symbol now serves only to identify allegiance. The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” depicted the state of consciousness that is built with the bricks of shibboleths – bricks without straw – perfectly. The song “Tradition” hit the nail on the head, showing how loyal people can and will be to symbols that have become disconnected to their original meaning because of the comfort and predictability that such loyalty brings.

I fear that the overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens are now loyal to the notion of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in much the same way. The American dream has become a shibboleth for many, where a connection to the original meaning and requirements of the term are divorced from current understanding. This separation makes it, or any other concept thus treated, a dead symbol which must be propped up by mindless repetition to be given the appearance of relevance and vivacity.

It hadn’t dawned on me how eager people are to worship the dead until a particularly enlightening day in August of 1996. I had just moved to Atlanta from the West Coast and I was driving to work when I noticed all of the cars ahead of me slowing and pulling over to the side of the road. Up until that point in my life, such a change in the traffic flow meant that an ambulance was coming. I slowed and pulled over in sequence, but much to my surprise an ambulance never came. Instead, what appeared on the other side of the road coming from the opposite direction was not an ambulance, but a hearse!

Now here’s the kicker. As I was driving home that night, an ambulance was making its way from the opposite direction with its lights on and sirens blaring as they often do, but it was weaving in and out of the traffic…that had not pulled over! As I said, people are much more prone to worship the dead than they are to accord the same level of respect to the living.

This is reflected in the way they interact with the symbols in life. Look closely and you will see the tendency to worship dead symbols in churches, schools, government offices, businesses and just about anywhere else you might look. Such loyalty brings comfort as well as a false sense of security, one that can easily be manipulated and controlled because it discourages active, radiant and accurate thinking while breeding a passive, reflective and warped frame of mind.

6 thoughts on “Living Symbols

  1. Colin

    I see a lot of manipulation of the shibboleth of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” right now in the coming election cycle in the US. If anyone thinks that our government really works in the framework of this motto they are crazy, and people generally understand this intellectually. You can see it with the dissatisfaction in the polls. But here’s the strange thing: it doesn’t matter. A politician will get up on the podium and harp on about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and it will really get a response from people! Even though they know that it means nothing. Maybe it’s a hope that we will get back to that as a country, but actions really do speak louder than words in this case and the actions have been moving directly the opposite way.
    Now this isn’t only limited to government. Any organization with any kind of history is open to this manipulation. Don’t believe the hype. Look at actions, not words. And also, as each of us live our lives with integrity and honesty, we become more discerning about what is true and what is not, and we can see through these deceptions much more easily! If you live your life with your head down and on autopilot, just trying to be as comfortable as you were yesterday, the truth will always elude you.


  2. Thank your post it makes me think more on what the original meaning was when it comes to symbols that have been present in my life. It is good to see how we are to provide the reconnection to that which really brings something of life’s character which you have noted as active, radiant and accurate thinking.


  3. Kolya

    Wow, what an great observation! It is interesting how we worship symbols that have no meaning to us-from historical figures to just ideas passed down in history. I’ll be thinking more about this as I’m sure I’ll start noticing it more in myself.


  4. Mmc

    Even in the reciting of our US Pledge of Allegiance, “…and to the republic for which it stands…” many don’t understand what a republic is. We seem to be heading towards socialism, that’s what being paraded as the land of the free. Sure free to work as hard as you want but your standard of living should still be equal to those who won’t. I think the word fair has lost connection to its original meaning as well. Interesting post!


  5. Mitch Webb

    It is strange that a society would yield to the dead and not to the living. But as far as written history goes back, it is less common to find instances of the latter. Eye opening post!


  6. Some thing inside of us wants us to hold on to the past, and in that manner continue to cling to out dated habits and routines. All of these coming from the continuous pattern in thinking that has not changed. Even when habits no longer serve us, we blindly follow them, and by habits, I mean basically everything that we do, not just the physical movements of the human form, but everything that we think that we are, all that is valued or regarded as having no value. Everything that we think others are. Who we think we are. These hardened and fixed thoughts extent outward on and on and on. Only by stopping long enough to take brief glimpses of our inner selves, do we even realize that we have the ability to change everything.


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