Symbols on our skin

I went to church tonight and had a symbol of ashes placed on my forehead. But this post is not about church, religiosity, or my own theological perspective. Skip all of that. For the sake of this post, the ashes were just the catalyst for a thought experiment. (Especially if you find all of those philosophical questions hard to ignore in the context of religious symbols — you, in particular, please skip all of that baggage and keep reading.) This post is about choice, how easy it is for symbols to be misinterpreted, and privilege.

All of the context needed for now is to say that Ash Wednesday is a special day on the calendar for me; I marked it by attending the Presbyterian church I attend every Sunday; and at the church service tonight I chose to receive a symbolic smudge of ashes on my forehead. I’ll avoid any discussion of the traditional meaning of these things as well as my personal interpretation of them — all of which would only distract from my message right now. To that end maybe I’ll try phrasing it even more simply: tonight I chose to associate myself with a community of people by wearing a symbol on my skin. That’s pretty sterile, but hopefully it lays the groundwork for where I’m headed.

Here’s the thought experiment I want to focus on: if the service had been at 7:00 AM instead of 7:00 PM, I might not have chosen to receive that symbol.

I wouldn’t want to wear the symbol of ashes on my face throughout the day for fear of dealing with how people might react to it. Here are some of the potential reactions I’ve imagined: 

  • Some people wouldn’t notice. Maybe my hair would cover the smudge. Maybe they wouldn’t look at my face. Maybe they would look me in the eye and somehow avoid seeing what was on my forehead. How much energy would I spend wondering how they were seeing me?
  • Some people would exercise restraint. Maybe they notice and maybe they react — but they are well-practiced with their manners and do a great job of keeping their reactions to themselves. Would I notice the difference between these first two groups of people? No idea.
  • Some people wouldn’t get it. I wonder how may times I would hear people point out with genuine care, “Hey, you’ve got something on your face…” as if I had something in my teeth. I wonder how exhausting it would be to explain myself over and over again at the lunch table.
  • Some people would assume I was one of them. They would see the symbol and figure that we must see things the same way. They would interpret the symbol as being part of their particular in-crowd that I may or may not actually want to be a part of.
  • Some people would assume I was one of them. They would see the symbol and associate me with something I’m not. They would assume that the symbol represents something that would draw deep dividing lines between us.

And, well, for a Wednesday in March that just sounds like a whole lot of bother. And so I’m aware that it’s much easier to choose to wear the symbol of ashes at 7:00 PM when I am heading straight home after the service instead of making that choice at 7:00 AM with the whole day ahead of me.

Regardless of the decision I make, in the end the thing that strikes me is that it is a decision at all. Every year when Ash Wednesday rolls around I can make a choice to wear the symbolic ashes on my skin or not. I can factor in the time of day, how patient or vulnerable I’m feeling at the time, my plans for the next few hours, or even if on that particular day that community is really something with which I’d like to associate myself.

Every year I have the opportunity to consider all of these variables and make a choice for myself. Every year I have the control to recalculate my decision to opt-in or opt-out of being vulnerable to these reactions.

But what about all of the ways in which we have no choice but to wear symbols on our skin every day? Symbols about race, heritage, and culture. Symbols about gender-identity, health, weight, and physical ability. Each of these things is a public symbol that exposes us to the same interpretations from others: some people won’t notice; some people will exercise restraint; some people won’t get it; some people will make you one of us; some people will make you one of them. All options are taxing.

The symbols we wear, and the weight of their (mis)interpretation, are incredibly heavy burdens to bear, especially when we have no choice but to wear them. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard, and so important, to get to know the person underneath.

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6 thoughts on “Symbols on our skin

  1. Another insightful post, Colin! I’m glad you decided to share something as personal as this. I get to understand why you are a great teacher and person.

  2. Colin,
    Thanks for sharing! This one hit close to home for me as I often wrestle with the “why” question when getting the ashes before work. Am I doing it so that I am noticed and people will ask about them? Am I not doing it because I would rather not have them making judgements/comments about the ashes? But either way, I am making a decision to wear them or not. I never made the connection to those that do not have such a choice. You post made me consider what its like to be in other people’s skin – and that is a good place to put yourself as it definitely changes one’s perspective on the world.

    Thanks again.

    PS Would love to chat more about your “ash” experiences and thoughts.

  3. This IS interesting, Colin, and makes me wonder about taking your thought experiment a little further towards some kind of controlled experiment in a school setting, where students are “marked” in some way and forced to deal with all that this entails over the course of the day, or part of a day– a little like that Jane Elliott’s blue eyes, brown eyes experiment that we have seen together.

    • Absolutely! I think that could be a really interesting social experiment. Two of the twists that you’ve got me wondering about: would students be allowed to choose to be marked or not? And would everyone in the scenario have the same information about what it means to be marked, or would different people have different understanding of what the marks represent?
      It would be fun to see if this thought experiment might be useful, as Dan is saying, to help us see what it’s like in each other’s skin…

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