Gadamer in The Relevance of the Beautiful (one of my favourite books) writes about the sign, which is apparent and takes on meaning for the believer, who will thus recognise the sign when looking at it. Gervase Mathews in Byzantine Aesthetics also discusses this point: that the meaning of the mosaics would be revealed only to the initiated.
There are so many signs that we are exposed to during our short stay on earth. Not everyone is interested in these signs, but some encounter life situations where it would be very hard to totally ignore the signs. And by signs, I am not talking about magical thinking or anything remotely close to that, but words, situations, feelings that point to something beyond, to something greater. To see this is to understand that there are crossways where this joins with our little, grain-of-sand lives. To know that there is a reason for what happens to us, and even a path for our little lives that we get glimpses into as our lives unfold.
Not that I agree with palm readings, but the idea of each person having a path - that changes as they grow - that is theirs alone; united with the kernel of their being, also expressed through their bodies, makes for a good enough illustration.
These thoughts occur to me today because on the feast day of St. John the Baptist, it occurred to me just how much faith he had to recognise the Son of God when he saw Him. I would say that for far less important things, it takes many, many signs for me to come to peace and accept what they mean. I also thought about how St. John the Baptist spent his life in the desert, not starving, but making space in himself for what he knew and felt was going to happen.
It is hard to realise just how much difficult experiences become gifts. If you don't feel that you are missing something, you have no space to be filled in. The Chinese write a lot about emptiness (ex. Lao Tzu: adapt the nothing therein to the purpose at hand) - actually, so do many Sufi poets (ex. Rumi: I've said before that every craftsman searches for what's not there to practice his craft). One cannot know in advance what will bring one fulfillment, again, this will be tailored to us personally, and changes as we grow.
Hopefully there is growth, and hopefully we grow in the right direction. (For every sign, there is its opposite.) But here is where faith comes in, and believing that the greater context is a loving one, that loves us as we are, and is waiting for us to renounce unrealistic or mean thoughts and actions; to attempt to embrace others, too, as they are.
This doesn't mean spending time as a hypocrite with people one secretly harbours judgmental thoughts about. It means doing as much as one can for others with what one has. I chose those examples, because I am still thinking of an NYT article I read yesterday, about how self-knowledge is supposedly the beginning of wisdom, but that if one possesses it, one is not guarranteed happiness.
I think the article was misled, but greatly admire the choice of subject. If you know yourself, you know - for example - that you want kindness from others, so you will try to learn how to be kind to or at least tolerate others (even in one's thoughts), even accepting those who are drastically different from yourself. What I mean by this is detaching when one recognises destructive behaviour, and not feeling threatened by it, but feeling compassion for the person who lashes out - because if they are lashing out, they are not happy, and are already living in their own hell, so one ought to immediately renounce misguided feelings of righteous indignation and react to them.
By extension, if one knows oneself, one sees that one isn't perfect, so it is not realistic to expect perfection from others. It is really hard to take other people's grief, but at least one knows that when one is on the receiving end, one isn't the person who is acting out (this time?!). Self knowledge is complex, because part of it comes from understanding how we act with others. For most of us, too, it is important because we realise that we cannot live totally alone. Also, can someone be happy if they are not forgiving of others?
So, none of these aspects operates alone: the world is a system of signs and symbols, and as we read ourselves and the world, we begin to see a clearer narrative structure for all that happens, that leads to a place of love that inspires awe. So loving that all of our imperfections are washed away. All that tormented us retreats.
Regardless, our beliefs do shape the signs we respond to.

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