Sunday’s Wisdom #331: Giving Symbols Meaning

“Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning.”
– Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Season 1, Episode 1, “New World Order”

This show just started, and it’s clear that the idea of symbols, their meaning, importance, and the weight that people give them, is going to play a significant role. Sam Wilson is right in what he says, but he’s slightly wrong, and, simultaneously, even more right than he knows.

A flag represents an organization, an entity, a place, a set of ideals, and the people who swear allegiance to it. Those people, men and women both, go forth and do things, and what they do becomes what that flag symbolizes to everyone else. The Nazi swastika, for instance, might well have become a most beloved symbol if the people who used it had done better things, like protecting their people and fighting for a just cause. Instead, it’s meaning became tyranny, cruelty, and genocide, no matter what it originally meant to the Germans and the Nazis themselves, and to the people whom Hitler stole that ancient symbol from in the first place.

What Sam gets wrong is this: when a symbol has become practically holy and sacrosanct because of the person who carried it, it is the meaning, not the person, which is most important.

In Sam’s defense, he has just been handed a momentous legacy to carry on, and he feels unworthy of it. He associates it with the man who gave it to him, the man who carried it forth through Hell and high water and worse. He associates it with everything that man did and believed and was committed to. He doesn’t see how he can possibly do justice to it after everything his friend did. So he gives it up, at least temporarily, that it might inspire future generations with the untainted ideals of its original bearer.

That was a mistake.

What Sam forgets is that the ideals which Captain America held so dear did not begin with him. They preceded him, and he devoted himself to them, and now they need someone else to carry them on. Yes, he left some very big shoes to fill. But the size of the shoe is no reason not to fill them.

Symbols are given meaning by people because people stand up for that meaning with that symbol in hand. As one generation steps to the side, as all inevitably must, the next generation is needed, else that meaning will inevitably wither and die, or even become corrupted.

Sam also learns the hard way that when you leave such a potent symbol lying around unattended, instead of carrying it on yourself, it will immediately be stolen by lesser men and perverted in the pursuit of power. There may be no greater example of this than the crucifix, which is a holy symbol of compassion and divine sacrifice, and also a symbol of superstition, fear, ignorance, hypocrisy, and, oh, yes, man’s hunger for total, absolute power. The people who began it, who gave that symbol its first meaning, were not the ones who created that second meaning. That was the work of succeeding generations, those opportunists who took it and turned it to their own ends.

It’s not enough for a symbol to have been given meaning in the past. People need to keep giving it that same meaning continually, else it is either taken by the unworthy or discarded by the unknowing.

The ranks which carry on the ideals of the past must be filled by those who are stepping into the future, by young people who understand and love those ideals. That is the entire purpose of a symbol in the first place.

That is where Sam is even more right than he knows.

The swastika, the crucifix, and other symbols have shaken and transformed the world many times over, and they were not lying alone and bereft of followers in a museum when they did so. They had people who gave them meaning.

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