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In a recent issue of the New Yorker, there is a fascinating article on Andy and Lana Wachowski, the siblings who are best known for writing and directing the “Matrix” trilogy. By all reports, the brother and sister are natural filmmakers who count “2001: A Space Odyssey” as one of their earliest influences. The family was apparently huge movie fans, of all genres, but 12-year old Lana recalls initially hating “2001” and was “perplexed by the mysterious presence of the black monolith.” Her father explained simply, “That’s a symbol”. The author recounts Lana’s reaction: “That simple sentence went into my brain and rearranged things in such an unbelievable way that I don’t think I’ve been the same since…it’s one of the reasons I’m a filmmaker.”

Granted, perhaps not every child will respond to symbols this way, but could a contributing factor be that we also don’t cultivate this type of visual seeing and learning enough? The anecdote resonated with me because this past week I have been struck by the complex overlays of symbol and iconography here in Civita. Admittedly, this is most probably the case in many countries whose historical timeline extends back beyond the 1800s but it feels particularly close to the surface in Civita and very much a part of daily life here.

It seems to me that America has trouble with symbols. Both commercially and on a personal level the relationship is one of ambivalence. In order to be sure they convey their intended meaning, we seem to feel they need amplification (a logo must always have a tagline, and perhaps a second, and a third…) or alternately, we fear they possess an innate power to excite and incite ideas and actions, allowing them to spin out of the sphere of our control.

As any designer knows, the advantage of symbols is that they speak a universal language. I do not need to be conversant in Arabic to understand that the Kaaba represents a significant “concept” to Muslims. I might not be able to fully articulate the subtleties of its meaning but I can understand the power and centricity of it as a symbol in one of the world’s great religions.

The more a symbol is used for a particular purpose, the clearer and more effective its communication will be. Each passing generation, utilizing the same symbol, builds up a clearer, stronger energy from that symbol and its resultant power increases. It is no coincidence that certain of these symbols from ancient civilizations continue to be an integral part our society, even to the point that corporations use them in commercials, movies, and logos.

Symbols can be like road maps, leading, or guiding you, toward a desired goal. Of course, the road is not a real road with dirt and stone; it is the energy we invest in the symbol. By this measure, it would seem to make sense that the most effective symbols are the ones that have lasted through the ages. Obvious examples include the Christian cross, the yin/yang symbol, the pyramid, the ankh, etc.

Once these symbol sets pass into the realm of becoming archetypes — ideas or ways of thinking inherited from all these sources and present in your subconscious — they become the model upon which you pattern your life, sending shorthand messages to your subconscious and conscious minds. They begin to function as a complete set, as iconography—the collective use of symbols and visual images by a certain culture or group designed to encourage certain behaviors or effects.

That is why people often choose to pray in a church setting when they could just as easily do so at home, or feel they can mediate more successfully in a space carefully designed to induce a contemplative state. Iconography can unlock a stream of memories, data, emotions and beliefs, and sometimes it happens whether we want them to or not.

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