A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed (2016)
Chapter 1. WHAT ARE SHOES?: COBBLING A SYMBOL FROM EVERYDAY LIFE
I had a dream that sparked an experiment in exploring symbolism.
In my dream, I opened my closet and a torrent of shoes poured out upon the floor.
At the time of this dream, I did have a lot of shoes. I have fewer shoes now, having refined my needs and preferences. I remain a shoe enthusiast, nevertheless. Just as the right tool for the right job makes all the difference, having the right pair of shoes for a given situation does provide a distinct advantage.
To have such an abundance of shoes appear in my dream made me ask, “What do shoes mean?” As we’ll come to appreciate, context is everything. That context is our relationship to shoes and their characteristics—it’s there that we find the meaning that shoes have for us.
Can we understand the meaning of something, I wondered, by observing how it appears or behaves in our dreams? To test this idea, I placed an ad in a magazine likely read by dreamers, asking for dreams about shoes. It didn’t take long before I had received in reply almost two hundred dreams involving shoes.
I analyzed the dreams, studying the way shoes made their cameo appearances.
The most frequent pattern was a dreamer finding shoes, or searching for shoes, with special features. Dreamers found shoes made of volcanic ash, for example; or shoes made from living, walking turtles; shoes with wings; and high-heeled tennis shoes. These dreams are reminiscent of fairy tales involving special shoes, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Red Shoes,” the magic shoes worn by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, or the winged sandals of the Roman god Mercury.
The second most common theme in the dreams I analyzed was a pervasive concern about the appropriateness of the shoes being worn. One dreamer tried to walk through snow in high heels. Ronald Reagan sold another dreamer a pair of shoes the dreamer wasn’t sure she really wanted. One dreamer complained that the shoes didn’t fit appropriately; they were too tight. Another dreamer wore tennis shoes to a fancy ball.
The third most frequent theme was that of losing one’s shoes. One dreamer left a party and later discovered that she had left her shoes behind. Someone took another dreamer’s shoes. One dreamer was standing in line at a complaint department to describe shoes that had been lost. Another dreamer was riding on a horse when his shoes fell off.
Many dreams involved shopping for shoes. A particular challenge is to find a pair of shoes that are both appropriate to the outer situation (including appearance and fashion) as well as comfortable and supportive of the inner situation—the emotional tenor of the person wearing them.
Discovering old shoes was another favorite, as well as losing the mate to a needed shoe.
Shoe dreams seem to mirror the shoe situations encountered in life. Shoes with special features seem to be a notable exception.
Do an Internet search for “shoes symbol,” and perhaps the most common description is “understanding.” Other explanations for the shoe as symbol include the terms role, adaptation, and persona. It’s as if to say, the kind of shoes one wears expresses one’s understanding of a situation, the approach taken to the situation, the way one adapts to it, or the role taken in the situation.
I might add that shoes represent understanding also in the sense of them being cognitive schemes, or mental abstractions, used as structures to contain and give shape to experience. They are tools in consciousness used as an adaptive tool to help navigate through life situations.
The general notion provided through the Internet search for shoe symbolism (i.e., that shoes represent understanding, as an attitude, strategy, or approach) is not far from the conclusions reached by this research. But perhaps there’s more.
Many shoe dreams reflected a concern for individuality as well as appropriateness. In one dream, for example, the dreamer lamented that all the shoes in the store seemed mass produced and none fit her unique orientation. One dreamer offered this observation, which can be taken both literally and metaphorically: “It’s hard to find a good-looking pair of shoes that fit comfortably.”
“One size fits all” is definitely not what shoes are about. There’s the outside of shoes, and how they look and how they adapt. But then there’s the inside of shoes, and how they fit or feel to the person wearing them. To “walk in someone’s shoes” means to empathize with that person, with the inside feel of that person. Here the shoe symbol brings up an important dimension of universal human experience: how we appear to others and get along versus how we feel, as individuals, on the inside. We want to find a way to be comfortable with ourselves and, at the same time, fit in comfortably with others.
Given this concern for functional and appropriate shoes that match the dreamer’s individuality, it is surprising that in none of the dreams was there ever mention of making one’s own shoes or having custom-made shoes. Here is an aspect of shoes from real life that is missing in dreams. What can explain this discrepancy? Is it simply because I didn’t collect enough shoe dreams?
Perhaps it is because the types of understanding symbolized by shoes aren’t the sort we consciously design or create but come ready-made from the unconscious mind. For example, in fairy tales, it is often the Brownies that make shoes for a person while that person sleeps. In this case, the understanding that shoes represent may come in the form of an inspiration or creative idea upon awakening. In any case, we will need to explore the mystery of where symbols come from and how they are created.
In some sense, then, shoes, as a symbol, can represent something about symbolism itself. Shoes provide for a relationship between our conscious standpoint and something “other,” such as the physical environment or a social situation. That symbols exist is in itself a clue that there’s more to this world than we realize consciously. There is something for us to understand. Symbols thus offer a relationship between what is known and what is generally unknown, an approach to the unconscious or greater mind. We might ask, then, “What kind of shoes might be best to wear when we go to explore symbols?”
At the end of each chapter there are a few pictures. They, and the captions accompanying them, exist not as a miniature dictionary or encyclopedia of symbolism. Instead, they present themselves to stimulate your imagination. They give you some practice exploring and discovering how symbols can lead you into interesting experiences and ideas.
The captions give you a start into the process. The captions, however, are words, not symbols. The words can’t substitute for the experiences latent within the symbol. Like the finger pointing to the moon, the finger isn’t the moon itself. The only connection is that the finger is pointing to the sky, where you can see the moon. Even then, the finger is pointing in the correct direction only half of the day, for during the other half day, the moon is below us. So words only approximate, and only some of the time.
Notice what thoughts and feelings come to you as you recall some of the attributes of the symbol. Looking at a shoe, for example, we think about how it fits on our foot and how it makes our foot feel. Suppose you had wings on your shoes; how would that feel? What if your shoes had wheels under them; how would that affect how you walk about? Where does that take your imagination? Go for a stroll in each pair of shoes and see where each pair takes you, and how.
Enjoy symbolism like a wonderful dessert, rather than like a crossword puzzle.
SOME SYMBOLS TO SAMPLE
If you had wings on your shoes, you’d …
Want to go bear foot?
Imagine walking on tiptoes.
Just rolling along …