Labyrinth of Inaction | The Symbolic Life

Pic-500-1200262In the comments on the environmentally tinged previous post, ‘Suzanna’ wrote that:

"Some is my faith community are thrilled that it is so "easy" to go to Nairobi in a group 60+ to help with AIDs sufferers.

Airfare? CO2 emmissions? What kind of economy are they demonstrating?"

It’s a frustration I fully sympathize with. The problem is that it seems that our every good turn is armed with poison for somebody. Our desire to do something for AIDS sufferers kills the planet. Just yesterday I went out to buy something… the environmental, organic version was only available from a shop some distance away. Do I drive and get the more ‘just’ product, or walk to the local shops and buy a big brand?

It seems, as Marquez wrote so beautifully of General Bolivar "is there any way out of this labyrinth?" If we are not careful, our determination to ‘do no evil’ leads us into a path of total inaction. It’s the end-game of postmodernism: there is nothing true, nothing to pin our colours to, nothing firm, nothing real… and nothing we can do.

I think there is a way out. A third way between blind belief in the goodness of our actions, and the tangled web of hopelessness. It is what I would call ‘the symbolic life’. It is, for me, what The Symbol Society is all about.

To live symbolically is not to do nothing, and nor is it to believe that we are saints with pure actions. It is simply to attempt, in everything we do, to point to something beyond ourselves. It is to live in hope, realizing that everything we do will have some ill effect somewhere, but believing that to keep raising symbols will, in some small way, have some greater impact at some unknown time in the future.

If I keep turning the lights off in my classroom when we leave, I know full well I am doing little to save the planet. But this tiny act is perhaps in some way symbolic, pointing people to a greater thing, to an idea about care for resources, and discipline to do our bit.

The Symbol Life is thus connected to the gift, which goes out of sight, and thus to generosity. We can’t do everything. But we can not do nothing. So we keep raising symbols, throwing up symbolic acts in raw hope…


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7 responses to “Labyrinth of Inaction | The Symbolic Life”

  1. we need to keep encouraging each other.
    I wrote this to a friend yesterday:
    “I think if someone could show us the future, we would just sit down and die. (see Kester’s blog)
    But there is something weird and altered about Faith. I think it really changes things! Not in a way that can be projected, but a way that has to be altered by the living out. Fear tells me hope is a hoax. and it is if I sit down and die. But hope is real. Hope does things. The thing inside is life.
    I’m not sure about any of that, but I like to talk about it, (do it) and wait and see what happens.”
    I’m glad you explained the symbol society a bit too.

  2. hey kester,
    i just wanted to drop a quick email and say that i’m a long time reader, often link-er and fan of the blog. its good to have you back online via signs and i’m very much appreciating the fare this time around.
    anyway, thanks for the great insight today, and here’s to hope.
    james kingsley
    (victoria, BC, canada)

  3. Thanks. It’s nice to have encouragement! We should do more of that!

  4. I like the follwoing quote from David Burrell – “we [must] take the sort of steps which are on a scale modest enough to be incorporated into our own story …if we begin to alter the pattern of our lives, however, we will have to explain those actions to urselves and those close to us”

  5. That’s really nice. Where’s it from?

  6. Kester – ah….I wish I could remember! Burrell is a colleague of Hauerwas at Notre Dame, but I can’t remember where I read that quote – sorry.

  7. ” It’s the end-game of postmodernism: there is nothing true, nothing to pin our colours to, nothing firm, nothing real… and nothing we can do. ”
    I think what you describe here is actually the beginning game of postmodernism. What you describe is certainly the rejection of modernism — of absolute truth, of objective analysis, of enforced ideas of reality — but the nothingness is not the true paradigm of postmodernism either. I would venture to say that The Symbolic Life is more postmodern than you realise, in the positive sense of moving past the modern way, and then past the depressing deconstruction of how that didn’t work, and into a hopeful active mindset to take us forward.