The power of symbols

I consider myself to be a pretty rational person. I’m a “person of faith” (almost as ghastly an expression as “person of colour”) but I’m not remotely fundamentalist and I’ll bet I’m more sceptical than Mr or Mrs Average. My faith does not require me to “believe 20 impossible things before breakfast” and it is exactly as an aid to rationalisation, to making sense of things, that I have faith at all. Faith worth having is always symbolic.

So perhaps I should not have been all that surprised by how affected I was by a relatively trivial event that occurred during the recent snowy weather. After the proper snow, in Manchester at least, we had a couple of encores with quite heavy snow showers, but ones that did not produce more than a fleeting covering of a centimetre or so. After one of these I went down to my car late in the evening to go home from the office. The snow on the ground had gone, but my car was covered in a layer of wet crystals also well on the way to melting. As I opened the car door, a load of them fell onto the driver’s seat. I was not best pleased. It was late, a very cold wind was blowing, and the last thing I wanted was a wet, cold bum. So with some considerable irritation I swept the melting snow vigorously from the seat.

I don’t know about you, but my fingers seem particularly liable to change diameter with differing temperature. With the second or third extravagant sweep of my hand, fuelled by my annoyance at my own stupidity in not opening the door with more care, I heard a metallic tinkle and saw for a micro second a sparkle as my wedding ring flew off my hand, bounced off the open car door, and landed somewhere on the wet tarmac of the office car park. It was one of those moments where the realisation of something’s significance lags momentarily behind one’s perception of the event itself. But only a moment, and that tiny delay seems to serve to amplify the realisation when it finally comes.

I was distraught. The car park spotlights reflected off the wet concrete with a thousand mocking false hopes. I was torn between frantic looking and despairing passivity. I tried to think logically, but I could feel only my mounting panic. The tarmac was deliberately cambered to assist with drainage, and it seemed to me that if the ring had landed on its edge, it could have rolled for yards. Where to start?

Miraculously, I’d only been looking for a matter of seconds – long enough for several imagined and doleful interviews with my wife to flicker across my consciousness; “How could you be so careless? Don’t you remember how much that cost me?” – when I spotted the ring not more than 6 feet from where I was standing. My relief was as cathartic as my panic had been terrifying.

And yet I was not as pleased as I should have been. Once I’d moved on from my relief, I was at liberty to muse on the fact that, found though it was, my ring had nevertheless been off my finger. I’ve been married a mere 5 years, but that ring had been put on my finger by my wife, and I had vowed that I would die with it still in situ. During boring meetings – and there’ve been a few – I would often play with it, drawing it over the first knuckle, but never, ever as far as the second. There have been times when I nearly let it fall off by mistake, and ended up in a cold sweat. Not that my wife shares any of this sentimental jewellery attachment. Her wedding and engagement rings come off daily to make way for hand cream applications, finger-nail painting, and a myriad of other beautifying or domestic routines.

Now that the ring’s been off I feel genuinely cheated in some way. I try to comfort myself with the thought that it’s never been off voluntarily, but it doesn’t really help. It was the absoluteness that really mattered, that the ring had never been put on my finger by me, but only by my wife. Now it seems that it’s there by false pretences. I know that this is foolish sentimentality, that my marriage is not strengthened or weakened by the ring, or by how it got on my finger. But that rationality is dispersed like mist by the power of the symbolism. And who, perhaps, is really to say that the one is real, and the other imaginary?


4 thoughts on “The power of symbols

  1. So refreshing to hear a man’s perspective about symbolism, particularly when it comes to a wedding ring. My husband never wore a ring in his first marriage. Now he doesn’t take it off. I wear mine all the time too, although it does come off at times. (I think the important thing is not that it comes off, but that it goes back on). I believe in symbolism, which may be why I collect Italian prayer ornaments, ex votos and religious icons (I’m not Catholic, but Presbyterian – and more spiritual than religious these days). Something about the deep sentimentality of these items touches me. On the other hand, I try not to become too attached to things, having lost many, many precious things in moves and travels over the years. It’s not the item itself that’s important, but the symbolism we attach to it.

    • “It’s not the item itself that’s important, but the symbolism we attach to it”

      Indeed, but the symbolism requires there to be a symbol to “contain” the symbolism as it were. And once that link is broken, it seems that it can’t be restored simply by dint of wishing it so.

  2. I think perhaps this could feel mended if your wife was to re-put the ring on, on some special occasion which you might need to create. I know you were talking about power of symbols – well, sometimes maybe we have to go with being human like that.

    Also, marriages can have crises which make them feel broken but the mending adds some depth. Maybe in a way this is a bit like that – something that ultimately enriches, by your acknowledgement of the importance of your ring and how it came to be on your finger. (both times)


    • Thank you Anne for a sensitive and perceptive comment. I think I shall have to invent just such an occasion – one I fancy that will also involve a rather posh restaurant!

      Loved your writing on gardens, by the way!

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