TAYLOR: The purpose of symbolic acts

‘A protest sign… does no good in a corner of the basement,’ Faith and Life columnist says

Pick up a pair of Dreamers and Schemers knee-high boot socks for the horse-lover on your list. Stop by Victoria Saddlery on Dec. 5 for a chance to win big prizes!

I have worn mismatched socks for most of 2021. Deliberately.

The idea came from a reader in England, a retired Methodist minister named Ken Nicholls who admits to “being a little eccentric at times.”

He wrote: “I decided some time ago to make a statement with my socks. I NEVER wear what is usually considered a pair. Socks are bought often from large stores selling them in packs of seven pairs. Often, seven different colours.

“So I may wear one green sock and one yellow. Or one blue, one purple. People I meet tell me that I have odd socks on. My reply is that they are wrong. This IS a pair.

“The socks have the same size, the same material, the same shape, the same manufacturer and the same thermal value.

“They only differ in colour. And colour is irrelevant to the way they are loved and valued. Why are you judging them by colour?”

I liked his idea enough to try it. But as a symbolic act, my mismatched socks were an utter failure.

Not one person noticed them.

Of course, it was the wrong time to attempt that particular gesture. Under current lockdown restrictions, no one ever sees my feet.

I am reduced to a face, on Zoom. Nothing below the neck ever shows.

It makes me wonder about the value of symbolic gestures. Does a symbolic gesture matter, if no one knows you’ve done it?

Remember the vast crowds in Washington singing “If I had a hammer…” with Peter Paul and Mary? Would the anti-war movement have the same effect if they had all stayed home and sung along with the radio?

Would the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire in the streets of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) have shocked Americans if they had chosen to immolate themselves in a secluded corner of a monastery?

A friend said she “had to go” to join the Million Women’s March on Washington. It was important to “be there” – not just to offer silent support.

A protest sign – no matter how carefully created – does no good in a corner of the basement.

But – isn’t there always a “but”? – is a prayer still a prayer, if it’s offered in private?

Is Mass still a sacrament if no one is there to receive the bread and wine?

During this pandemic, many priests have found themselves celebrating traditional congregational rites alone. Indeed, for centuries, that was the norm – the priests partook of the elements; the laity merely observed a ritual done on their behalf.

I remember asking an Anglican priest what she would do if no one showed up for her midweek Eucharist.

“God is there,” she replied, “even if no one else is.”

If that’s true for religious rituals, surely the same applies for people who keep their symbolic gestures private. God is there as they cut back on fossil fuels, without making public pronouncements. Or as they quietly become vegan.

Or wear mismatched socks.

Maybe this is “both/and” not “either/or.”

If a symbolic act is supposed to change someone else, it has to be public. If it’s supposed only to change me, then private works fine.

The important thing is symbolic acts matter.

Both ways.

Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.