I was a teenager trying to entertain 2-year-old Laura as she squirmed in her high chair. Thinking myself a clever babysitter, I held up her laminated placemat, which featured a photograph of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
"Is this a picture of Donald and Daisy Duck?" I asked.
"No," she giggled.
"Is it Goofy and Pluto?"
"Nuh-uh!" she squealed.
"Well, who are they?" I asked, gearing up for the inevitable right-answer celebration. But her reply caught me off guard.
"Strangers in costumes."
Laura is grown now, but I've been thinking about the pragmatism she exhibited as a toddler. Her no-nonsense take on the world (at least the world of Disney) is a perfect example of what sociologist Philip Rieff and philosopher Allan Bloom both described as a "low symbolic hedge."
I encountered this idea in The Shattered Lantern, a book by Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser. If many Westerners have trouble perceiving God's presence in daily life, then perhaps, says Rolheiser, the problem is that our culture lacks potent symbols.
The ability to use symbols distinguishes humans from other animals. Consider eating. All animals use food for sustenance and pleasure. But humans can employ candlelight, china, toasts, and blessings to imbue a meal with significance. Through symbols, eating can embody romance, friendship, honor, or celebration.
I must confess: I usually have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with such symbols. When, for instance, I eat on the run, my symbolic hedge is low; food is just fuel, and the day is just a succession of hours to manage or endure.
But Rolheiser warns that a low symbolic hedge drains the meaning ...