Symbols of Life
That's how the patient responded when I asked him what his biggest concern is right now. This man, whom I'll call Carl, has a wife and two teenage daughters. He had just recently discovered that he had malignant tumors spread throughout his chest cavity. He had been as healthy as a horse his whole life and often joked that the only time he had been in the hospital was when he was born. His wife described their family to me as "very close," doing a lot of things together. Carl had been working for a long time on a large dollhouse for one or both of his daughters. As I visited him in his hospital room and asked him what his biggest concern is, he responded, through sobs, "The dollhouse isn't finished."
His wife all but scolded him for the response. "Oh Carl, come on." Carl shakes his head and puts his hand up, saying, "I know, I know...I know it sounds crazy, I know there are more important things, but that's what came to mind." As Carl's wife continued to make him feel guilty for that response, I tried to explain something to her.
Humans have an incredible need for tangible things that can serve as a symbol for something that is otherwise intangible. We wear wedding rings. We freak out when we lose them not because we're unmarried without them but because they are important symbols of a deeper reality. We keep pictures of friends and family in our home and office. Not because the pictures make them any more present with us, but because they serve as important reminders of their reality and the relationship. We decorate at Christmastime and light advent candles. We wear crosses around our necks. We build churches and temples. We put tombstones at burial sites. We also use symbols in our minds - metaphors - to understand things. The next time you read your Bible, sing a hymn, or listen to a spoken prayer, pay attention to how many metaphors are used to try to describe or grasp the mystery of God (hand, throne, eye, garden, heart, etc.). The ancient Israelites used an ark to symbolize God's presence with them. The only problem is when the image or symbol is equated with God or is used as an attempt to domesticate or replace God (as was the problem in Exodus 32:1-8, for example).
Carl was not being materialistic or trivial in his focus on the dollhouse, as his wife clearly assumed. Rather, the dollhouse for him was a powerful symbol of his relationship with his daughters, and its unfinished status was now a heart-wrenching representation of the prospect of not getting to see them grow up and have grandchildren. For him, the dollhouse is a symbol of life; a representation of something even more real than the thing itself.
Materialism is rampant in our society, to be sure, and people seem to put things before others. But the next time you notice yourself or someone else fixated on a certain object or tangible symbol, remember that there may be much to learn by exploring what that thing represents. It might stand for something...and that something might be very important.