A young man once wrote to the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, complaining that he found life boring and unexciting. He lived in a small town where it seemed nothing much ever happened. Rilke replied: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.” When we feel bored and dissatisfied, when there is a lack of novelty, excitement, love and depth in our lives, the temptation is to blame life and then rev the engines, move on, increase the dosage and seek new excitement. But this is a mistake. Excitement, depth, love and novelty are not found by constantly moving on or increasing the dosage. They are triggered by entering life correctly. We learn this by looking at children, poets, artists and saints. Their lives are never devoid of excitement and depth. They are always falling in love and life for them is constantly exciting even when on the surface it appears dull and ordinary. Why?
Because they surround it with its proper symbols. The entire difference between depth and superficiality, excitement and dullness, lies in this, namely, symbols. As humans we are distinguished from animals precisely on the basis of symbol-making ability. We make symbols, animals don’t. Because of this we experience things deeply and they do not. Humans and animals share many common activities. Like us, animals work, live in communities, eat, make love, give birth and take care of their young. But for us these things have, potentially at least, a far deeper meaning because we enter them differently and surround them with symbols. It is this that we must look to when we feel that our lives are dull and uninteresting. When our lives lack depth, the question becomes: Are our symbols adequate? Are we surrounding our activities with a proper symbolic hedge? Allow me an example: There are two ways a human being can eat, with symbols and without them. Often we eat without symbols. Eating then is little different than gassing up a car. We pull up to the table with an empty tank, quickly and non-reflectively (and without really tasting our food) gulp down a meal, and then, like a car pulling back onto the freeway, we leave the table to head back to our busy concerns.
We have nourished our bodies but it has been a very bland and superficial experience, little different than an animal eating. By way of contrast, eating with symbols, imagine this scenario: Two persons are deeply in love and set out to dine together. They spend time talking before the meal, perhaps having a drink. Then they approach a table which has been carefully laid out, complete with candles. They hold hands and say a special grace. Then slowly and reflectively, over the course of some hours, they eat a meal together. They conclude with a toast and another grace. Theirs is not a bland and superficial experience, one that can be had by animals. The difference between these two ways of eating lies in the symbols. In the latter case, the persons surrounded their eating with a symbolic hedge, namely, ritual, mystique, aesthetics, romance, divine providence.
The symbols made the difference, elevating what would have been a very ordinary activity into something very special. The more special the symbols, the more special the meaning! This is true of all human activity, namely, it has depth or superficiality depending entirely upon the symbolic hedge with which we surround it. People fall in love. If they surround this experience with symbols that link it to sacrality and ultimacy (“This is destiny!” “God arranged for us to meet!” “Our meeting has significance in God’s plan for us!”) then the experience comes laden with depth (not to mention romance, aesthetics and fidelity) which lifts it far above mere chemistry and accident. Conversely, if it is not surrounded by such symbols, this experience, while perhaps just as laden with intensity and sensation, will offer nothing beyond intensity and sensation (transient as these are).
Ultimately then, it is merely an accident, a confluence of circumstances, the right chemistry. There is no meaning beyond these. Meaning comes through symbols. The same is true for the experience of sexuality. Stripped of a symbolic hedge which links it to ultimacy and sacredness, it is reduced to a simple here and now experience, pleasurable in itself, as is eating a good meal, but devoid of power to trigger depth, ecstasy and encounter beyond the level of physical sensation. Small wonder that sexuality, when it is no longer symbolically enhedged by symbols of sacramentality, soon loses its aesthetics and is commonly called by a crasser name. Einstein once said: “Experience is not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you.” Thus, if your daily life seems poor and lacks in depth, let this question arise in your mind: Are your symbols thriving? Are you poet enough, artist enough, saint enough, child enough, to surround your ordinary activities with their proper symbolic hedge?