November 17


Finding Principles Through Symbolism

By Tresta Neil


               (written by Tresta Neil for Audrey Rindlisbaucher at Mission Driven Moms)

Years ago, I sat for weeks in the hospital with my very sick son feeling quite sorry for myself. My six young children were home alone without a mommy while daddy worked hard, caring for kids at home while going to and from the hospital to support and bring us supplies. At this time I believed I had more problems than anyone else in the world, I could think of no one worse off than I was. A wise nurse recognized my situation and  sat down with me. She shared an analogy that helped her when she was in the hospital with her son.

“I built a protective bubble around myself where nothing could get in, like a shield. In this bubble, I am at peace and can handle all the bad news and problems thrown at me. I could then say, ‘Bring it on’ every time I received more bad news.”

I pondered her statement for days. I wanted to be able to handle all the hard things I was going through. I used her Symbol of a protective bubble to help me understand the principle of finding peace in the storm of problems. I adopted the saying, “Bring it on,” along with the image of the bubble. When the doctors came in with more bad news I’d think, “Bring it on!” When my husband would tell me about the children’s struggles at home I’d think, “Bring it on!” When my stopped breathing and the room filled with staff I thought, “Bring it on!”

I didn’t really understand what was happening at the time, but this nurse had given me the gift of symbolism to get through a very hard time. I had known all my life that through God I should find peace in the storm of troubles but living that principle had completely alluded me. Now with one simple symbol, I was made strong and able to meet the challenge. The symbol of the bubble helped me live the principle of being strong and finding peace in a difficult time. 

Symbols are that powerful! They can help us take a principle from knowledge (I know I should be strong but I can’t get out of self-pity) to understanding (visualizing myself as protected, I was able to cope). Symbols help us internalize principles.

Usually, when we think of symbols, we think of the kinds of things this nurse gave me–images, signs or shapes. Things like flags, signs, colors, nature and logos are the first symbols that come to mind.  In addition, though, actions such as taking your hat off, shaking hands or putting your hand over your heart also represent or symbolize something.

Although symbolism includes signs, shapes and actions, it is so much more than that. It involves thought patterns and communication skills as well.

When I first began to learn about this, it was a confusing idea for me. How can there be symbols in thought patterns or communication? Let me give you and example. 

When two mothers wanted to let their child know how paints should be used in the home, these are the requests they made: 

Mother #1: “A wise child uses twice as much care with her mother’s things as she does with her own.” 

Mother #2: “If you use my paints on the wall you’ll be in big trouble.”

Which seems more like a symbolic question?

You guessed it, mother #1! 

Interestingly, these two requests also represent the difference between Eastern forms of communication and Western ones. Thinking and speaking from an Eastern frame of reference tends to be far more symbolic in nature and therefore more transformative.

Here’s why: We, who are of a western thinking culture, would expect to hear the more direct “paint” warning. Both work at getting the thought across, but the first encompasses a lot more than the paint. The mother in the “wise child” example is placing more responsibility upon the child to help her learn to think for herself by teaching through symbolism. The “wise child” may think, “I want to be a wise child…why would it be wise to be more careful with Mom’s things….” This child is considering far more than just what she should do with paints. She’s considering who she is, who she wants to be, her relationship with her mother, how she should behave with all of her mothers possessions and how she should treat others.

The mother of the “paint” example is directly telling her about what not to do with the paints and thereby not giving her the responsibility to think it through. This child may start drawing with markers on the furniture and wonder why she’s in trouble. More importantly, she’s missed the opportunity of intentionally reforming her character, not just her behavior, through counsel from her mother. It’s an incredible mothering opportunity missed. 

Now, the connection between principles and symbols was touched upon in my personal story but let’s look at it a little more closely. John Young, a teacher on Ritual and Symbolism said, 

“By pondering and learning through symbolism we can internalize each principle and as we study principle upon principle, we can begin to see the whole picture more clearly.  Maybe a better way of putting it would be that the symbolism helps us see just how the principle fits in with others to complete the picture.” ~John Young

Although I’ve been passionate about, studied, written books about and taught symbolism for many years, this one statement helped me gain a deeper understanding of the connection between these important ideas. 

Scriptures and classics are rich with symbols. In them and through them we get to learn how to “decode” the symbolism. I think that most of the time it’s not the “decoding” that is difficult, but rather we are not accustomed to thinking through such language. We tend to think in a one-dimensional world and God invites us to “see” in three dimensions. God’s language of symbolism is plain, rich, adds dimension and depth. It is in the process of thinking through symbolism that we internalize principles and therefore, can more efficiently act on them. 

As Young explained, symbolism helps you make connections with other principles and prepares you for an application and action.

The language of symbolism is the language of our Master Teacher, Jesus Christ. Let us strive to  think through such language and become more like Him–better communicators and thinkers, receiving direction and guidance and, best of all, understanding how to be Mission Driven.

by Tresta Neil, Co-founder of Called to Learn

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