The importance of symbolic action is not lost on me. I see no particular problem with limited symbolism, even if it’s destructive.
After a particularly bad time in my life, I took some old journals into the woods behind my neighborhood and burned them. To celebrate a trying but ultimately satisfying summer, I purchased a very expensive bottle of whiskey for the sole purpose of smashing it on a sidewalk. I once cut my arm so I could bleed on a farm in a rural village I was working at, as some sort of reminder to come back.
These were all symbolic – not to mention ridiculous. Pardon the pretentiousness, but there were some good things written in those journals; I’ve more than once wished I could read them again. My money would have been better spent on something I would actually use. And let’s face it: Cutting yourself is always dangerous – physically and mentally.
Symbolically, though, these things were important to me; they were cleansing and, in the long run, not regrettable.
But symbolic actions tend to build up. The danger isn’t in one, two, three, four symbolic actions; the danger is in the sum of them all. Before you know it, symbolism becomes tradition, tradition becomes habit, habit becomes a problem. The progression is frighteningly easy; the reversal can seem impossible.
Worse yet, the line between one symbolic action and the next is fairly inconsequential. An individual action, to commemorate something good or escape something bad, seems excusable – “man, I totally deserve/need/desire this right now.” Only once, it’s always only once. Maybe twice; it worked so well the first time. Until suddenly you have no idea when the first time was and can’t comprehend when the last time will be.
“The only foundation you have in life is yourself. Don’t let it crumble.” Flash of brilliance from fading grace: An old friend told me this – soon thereafter, he broke his own advice.
The major problem, as I see it, is an unwillingness to over-dramatize yourself or, worse yet, to join that club.
Everyone knows someone who knows someone whose dad showed up at their soccer game with a stutter in his step and a disconnect in his speech. Everyone knows someone who knows someone whose mother embarrassed him by obnoxiously hitting on all his friends at graduation.
Cue the nervous laughter.
Symbolic action is dangerous because it leads to bigger things. A symbolic action is done to show control, to prove that you’ve “got balls,” that you can hang. That maybe, just maybe, if I can hurt myself hard enough, no one else will have the power to. But when the progression from symbolism to tradition to habit to problem starts, the very control that meant so much is lost. Symbolism is wiped out.
“I never saw him sober,” or “Man, that guy was always on something” becomes your whispered eulogy. It’s funny at first, but there is nothing Hemingway about such a life. It’s not a romantic lifestyle – it’s barely a life at all.
Loss of control is the beginning, middle and end of the crumbling of your foundation. As soon as that control is lost, the game’s over. Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars (excuse the clich