The Relationship Between Symbols and the Thing to Which They Refer

Sometimes it can be helpful to learn a word or concept before we understand what it means. That way, when life presents us with new experiences, we can already have the language to help us process and integrate what is happening to us.

The first word I remember this happening with was ‘adopted’. I’m sure I heard the word ‘adopted’ long before I had the mental capacity to fully understand what it meant or the social implications. My older sister was adopted before I was born, and I can’t remember there being a time when I didn’t know she was adopted. It probably took me learning about birth to fully understand that ‘adopted’ meant she came out of a different woman than I did, and watching TV to discover that some people found it undesirable to be adopted. It was never traumatic for us as children, because my parents had always been frank, and never said ‘adopted’ with a tone of voice to indicate it was in any way undesirable. In fact, they love telling the story of how hard adoption was, and how they had just about given up, when my sister turned up out of the blue, “like manna from heaven.”

I compare this to families who wait to tell children that one of them is adopted because “they’re too young to understand.” By the time they sit the kids down to tell them about the adoption, the kids have already formed impressions and notions about what adoption means. Maybe they have an idea that being given up for adoption means their genetic mom didn’t love them (clearly, often a woman gives up a child because she loves it and wants a better life for it than she can provide, yet a kid might not see that), or that their adopted parents aren’t their “real parents.” (They may not be the genetic parents, yet they are certainly the real parents.) If the parents use the symbol, the word ‘adopted’, with a certain tone of voice and emotional stance, then as the children acquire language they will know that whatever life experience goes with that symbol also gets that emotional stance.

I often think it would be better to teach kids about sex like this. Use the words around them and speak frankly and lovingly about it before they have any idea what it is, or interest in it. Then they already have a framework of concepts and a model for emotional response that can protect them from disinformation and shame. It’s tempting to wait until kids are “old enough”, but by then they might already have picked up information or experimentation on the playground that leaves them susceptible to unhealthy attitudes, which can lead to unhealthy behavior.

Learning things before they can be understood happens with adults, too. For years, I read that my sign, Gemini, was a mutable sign. Other signs are fixed or cardinal. I had no clue what that actually meant. It took years of hearing a clue here, and a clue there, and witnessing myself, to finally piece together that mutable is the energy that takes things from the death part of the cycle and prepares them for the rebirth part. If I had never heard the word ‘mutable’, I might not have tuned into that part of the birth-death-rebirth cycle, nor noticed all the ways it played out in my life. The same thing happened with the elements. It took me but a moment to read that the elements are earth, air, water, and fire, yet it took me years of noticing and reflecting on the nature and properties of those elements and how they act in the world for that sentence to mean anything to me.

Sometimes it happens the other way around. I’ll notice a pattern or phenomenon, perhaps for years, and then someone will tell me a word that means that thing. That’s always a magical feeling. More often, though, I already have the word, and my understanding of it deepens as I gain more life experience. This is why I can read a book or article 10 years after I first read it and glean whole new meanings and information from it.

Words are symbols that refer to life, so it makes sense that we can learn the symbol first, then fill in the life experience to which it refers, or have the life experience, then learn the symbol that goes with it. As we experience more and more life, the symbols can become richer and deeper in what they are referring to, because your life itself has gotten richer and deeper.

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