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It’s Not What It Looks Like

swastika in the sidewalk

Today I saw something on the sidewalk that made me stop. Somebody had etched a small swastika in the concrete.

I wouldn’t say it exactly upset me, but it got me genuinely curious… who did that?

Presumably, some kid stumbled across a rare chance to immortalize himself in unguarded wet concrete, and this was his choice. Did he really subscribe to Nazi ideology, or was he just experimenting with shock value?

The sidewalk bordered a park, beside a high school. Did he go to that school? No, he was probably younger. Did he scrawl that symbol in an effort to prove his badness to his friends, or was he alone when he did it?

It couldn’t possibly be a girl.

A rather definite picture of him formed in my head: grade 5 or 6, white, a little bit fat, buzzed brown hair, and his eyebrows come to rest in a scowl. He picked on smaller kids in younger grades sometimes. He hangs around with two kids who are smaller than he is, and they look up to him. He isn’t aware of it, but he speaks with authority when they are around, and at no other time.

I pictured the three of them, crossing the park after school. When they reach the sidewalk, our anti-hero notices the tell-tale dark patch on the sidewalk: freshly poured concrete, and nobody watching. All three are excited, but the two smaller kids wait for the big kid to do something.

He pushes his index finger in, and is disappointed to find it’s been drying for a while — he can’t make a mark. Determined, he grabs a stone, and gouges a vertical line, then crosses it with another. Still not entirely sure what he’s aiming for, he scores the four remaining lines, and sits back to look at it. The other two don’t know what to make of it, and aren’t sure whether to be impressed. But they are most comfortable saying nothing, as is the main kid. The trio gets up and leaves, vaguely disappointed in their first vandalism experience.

That’s when I realized I had become completely carried away by my thoughts. I had sat down, without really noticing, on the slope overlooking the field. I took a photo.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m in the twilight phase of my overseas trip and I do have a lot of spare time on my hands. On a different day I might have just carried on walking. Pretty much anybody would have (although in the photo you can clearly see that somebody has tried to scratch it out — who?) But today, evidently I was affected by what I’d seen. Not distraught, just intensely curious about the moment it appeared there.

In reality, I wasn’t affected by what I’d seen. I was affected by my thoughts. All of that imagery was completely my own work — everything other than the six scratches in the sidewalk. Human motives fascinate me, but if I had not learned to associate that particular symbol with certain human motives, it would have just been a simple little doodle on the sidewalk. The symbol itself is inert. It is not harmful. We react to what we infer from it. So ultimately, I reacted to a part of myself.

As I edit this post here in a Brisbane Public Library, I notice that I’ve been careful not to let the photograph of the symbol sit prominently on my screen too long. I scroll by quickly because I know it triggers powerful reactions in people. Hiding it is almost an automatic reflex.

Yet it has no meaning but what one gives it. The meaning you give it must be something that is already in your head, and what’s in your head depends on your experience in life. So far.

Accidental Education

It reminded me of something that happened when I was in elementary school.

Now, one of the primary concerns of a grade three boy is protecting himself from cooties.

The first line of defense against cooties, of course, is to avoid touching girls, because everybody knows that’s where cooties come from. If you are ever unfortunate enough to touch a girl’s bum — the source of all cooties — you instantly die.

Other than that we were never really sure what would happen to you if you got cooties, except that everyone would make fun of you, until they forgot you had cooties.

Just as medieval peasants did with the black plague, some of us began to experiment with superstitions, to help improve our odds. One day, during playtime, two of my friends showed me they had drawn a symbol on their wrists and on their schoolbooks, which they claimed protected them from cooties. Each assured me it was true.

It looked like this:

simple crossAfter a while, somebody said that’s the symbol of Jesus, and Switzerland, so they should pick another one.

They took this advice to heart, and during the next play time, one of them showed me their revised symbol, etched in red pen on his forearm. It looked like this.

Being the learned boy I was, I already knew that symbol, and what it represented. It represented the bad guys in Indiana Jones. They all wore it on their arms. I decided I was better off risking cooties than having to align myself against my hero, so I voluntarily went without its mystical protection.

Soon enough (perhaps at the teacher’s encouragement) the symbol evolved again, this time like this. And of course we eventually forgot about cooties anyway.


Grade Five, for me, coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we learned a bit about the history of Germany in social studies.

It was then that I learned the bad guys in Indiana Jones were actually real — and I learned what they did. It was only then that their curious logo took on the meaning it has to me today.

World War Two was pretty much the biggest news story of all time, so most people eventually come to make the same inferences from a sighting of the swastika — namely the intentions and beliefs of the person who drew it there. Yet theoretically, anybody who had somehow missed every chance to learn about the war could still conceivably see it only as the plain, inert symbol it is, free of all our learned associations about it.

It is so hard for us to see something without presuming that it is what it represents to us in our thoughts — in the case of the swastika, that it is hatred, is genocide.

During a class discussion about Nazi Germany, one of my friends, a Canadian-born girl from an Indian family, said she had only ever been taught the symbol is a good thing. The class was aghast, yet most of us had only known about the Nazis for less than a week. Some people called her a Nazi. Later we learned why she said that, but her nickname stuck.

The swastika did not originate with the Nazis. It’s a pretty obvious design, and it’s been used for over seven thousand years, inherited as a religious symbol by Hinduism, Buddhism, Native Americans and a host of other spiritual and social institutions. Hitler was a very late adopter. But for most of the people reading this, it means genocide, fascism, murder — and little else.

Those are the connotations each of us adopted from our own haphazard combination of history classes, war documentaries and Indiana Jones movies, and those are the meanings we now give it when we see it.

indian bastketball team circa 1909

An Indian basketball team, 1909. Clearly not white supremacists.

So symbols of any kind (which include art, as well as words and phrases) can’t actually be offensive. We can be offended, but what offends us are the thoughts we have about it.

It sounds like a pointless semantic distinction. But think of it this way: every connotation a given symbol seems to carry is actually information that we add to it, as a mental reflex — it is not information we derive from it.

We see some familiar characteristics, and link them up in our minds with what they’ve represented to us in the past, then we project it on what we see.

I am not saying we should avoid doing this. In fact, you’d find it pretty much impossible to stop. This is how judgments are made, and obviously judgment can be useful. Your mind is just giving you its best guess at what you should make of what you see, based on similar past experiences. But it is only a guess.

Though we can’t always discern our inferences from what we actually see, it pays to simply be aware of what’s actually happening, by learning to monitor our reactions as they happen. If I find a certain song to be “annoying,” I’ll respond to it differently if I’m aware that the annoyance is not a part of the song, it’s a part of me. That way I can anticipate and account for my reaction, knowing that it’s all my doing, not the song’s.

A casual awareness of this sort of projection can help you employ one of life’s most useful truths: most of what you see is really just what you think about what you see.

It is possible for humans to see things just as they are, without getting lost in their connotations. You just have to remember that they’re always at play, and remember which way they’re going.

swastika ontario

Welcome. Notice the "Block Parent" sign in the foreground

A Happy Swastika

The proud mining town of Swastika, Ontario is often pressured to change its name. During the war, the provincial government sought to rename the town to avoid an uncomfortable association with the Nazi party. Their suggestion was “Winston.”

But the residents refused. They love their Swastika just the way it is.


Swastika photo and artwork by David Cain, all others public domain.

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Lynnie June 10, 2010 at 5:16 am

The Isle of Man has a similar symbol, only with three legs, instead of four, to denote that whatever way you fall, you always stand on your feet, I think is the message –

You are in Brisbane public library!? I live in Brisbane, Queensland – Hello!

David June 11, 2010 at 1:20 am

Ah I just left Brisbane. I was there for a week, hanging out at the Queensland State Library, writing and drinking coffee.

I’m up in Mooloolaba, looking for some surf.

David June 11, 2010 at 1:21 am

Actually, I should go and explore the town before it gets dark. I’ll respond to the rest of these lovely comments later.

Daniel June 10, 2010 at 5:22 am

Fantastic post as usual. Thank you.

Jay June 10, 2010 at 6:28 am

While reading this post, I was all set to comment about how the swastika had been a symbol of peace and compassion for thousands of years before Hitler…so when I got to the bottom, I was all like, “Well, crap. There goes my comment.” :)

But as to the real message of your post, that symbols only have meanings that we assign to them, thank you for the good reminder. I know that in my own life, I have a tendency to forget that, and it causes me all sorts of unnecessary pain. Maybe not so much with symbols, but mainly with people’s actions or words that they say.

99% of the time, the things that people do or say aren’t meant to hurt me, and if I get hurt, it’s only because I have assigned a meaning to their words or actions that probably aren’t true. I’ve been struggling a lot with this lately, and even though I know better, it still keeps coming up. I get hurt and upset and angry, then depressed, and it’s all because of an interpretation that I chose to believe. I almost always find that if I can return myself to a place of calm and peace, I can see how my interpretation was inaccurate, and how I am responsible for my own suffering.

lol, all of that, just to say thank you for saying exactly what I needed to hear. Again. You rock, David!

David June 11, 2010 at 4:03 am

Yes, words are the most loaded symbols of all. Each of us have certain words that trigger painful reactions, no matter what the speaker means by them. I was going to get into that, but the post was long enough. There is a lot more to talk about here.

Andre January 9, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Hi , I am of the belief that if the ticks on the cross go left it impresses in energy an uplifting loving ascension process.
If the ticks go right it is of the reverse energies and things of this world; that screw you down into materialism or worse all the more.

Andre January 9, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I noticed the one that the children drew ‘to protect from cooties’ was not the nazi version.

At some traffic lights the other day:

I glanced into the front of a surgery and there was a Biker with colors on his leathers that said ” Immortals Melb”

He was on a mobile phone and staring down while pacing up and down, worried look, rubbing his head.

Tough life for some. ;-)

Trish June 10, 2010 at 6:35 am

Nice post; I now have something interesting to wrestle with on my morning commute. Especially like “most of what you see is really just what you think about what you see.” Love good “food for thought” ….


Maria June 10, 2010 at 7:22 am

I´ve been reading your blog for a few months and i just wanted to say that all the posts are awesome ! It´s really good to see a person such commited with his life and beliefs.

You have a devoted spanish reader here !

Andrea Owen June 10, 2010 at 8:27 am

When I was in 5th grade I learned how to draw a swastika. I must have seen it somewhere, but I had no idea what it meant, just that it took some thought to draw the lines in that particular way. My parents were not racist by any means, I really can’t remember where I originally saw it.
I doodled on a spelling test a few swastikas and turned in my test. The next day my teacher, Mr Millar stood over my desk and berated me. I was not the type of little girl to ever get in trouble and I still had no idea why he was so angry with me. No explanation of the meaning of the swastika, no gentle history lesson of the Nazi army, Adolf Hilter or WWII. Sadly, Mr Millar was in fact a great teacher, but the only thing I remember from 5th grade is being humiliated for drawing some lines on my spelling test.
Pretty amazing what a symbol can do to people.

David June 11, 2010 at 4:07 am

Isn’t it strange how that works? He didn’t even realize the symbol is just lines, there’s nothing bad in it. The swastika is especially prone to misunderstanding, because of the religious affiliations, and also because it’s not that complicated a shape — any kid could come up with it.

KellieBom June 10, 2010 at 10:29 am

I remember a story about a german lady who inherited a beautiful, intricate, handmade quilt from her native husbands grandmother who had recently passed on. In the center of the quilt was a glaring red swastika. In native culture, the swastika was a symbol that represented friendship and goodwill and they used it on many of their crafts to sell to tourists. The german wife understood this and treasured the beautiful quilt that was left to her, but she kept it tucked away in a closet to avoid any kind of misunderstandings.

David June 11, 2010 at 4:18 am

Hey KellieBom! Good to hear from you.

Come to think of it there must be a lot of awkward swastika moments, between people who have totally different ideas of what it means. Imagine getting swastika earrings as a gift. “Oh, they’re… nice!”

Brad June 10, 2010 at 2:05 pm

This is what the linguist Korzybski called “consciousness of abstraction”. First, we need to realize that our ideas about something isn’t the thing itself. Secondly, to realize that our raw experience of it, when you remove ideas, is also not it.

David June 11, 2010 at 4:24 am

Yes, that’s exactly it, and there’s so much more to this idea. I will look up “consciousness of abstraction”. Thanks Brad.

Joy June 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Hi David,
Your conclusion is exactly right on: “most of what you see is really just what you think about what you see”. In my personal life, and in coaching others, I often turn off my mind and allow my senses to lead–not my emotions, but my senses. That allows me to truly experience life, or those moments in life, exactly as they are, not as I wish or perceive them to be. My mind thinks, my emotions can be across the board, but my senses allow me to experience everything on a different, more pure level.

David June 11, 2010 at 4:27 am

I do that too. Emotions, I figure, exist to create a bias in our perceptions. This may have helped our ancestors survive by encouraging us to jump to conclusions sometimes, but like so many of our traits it is often a liability when life and limb aren’t at stake. The senses are much more dependable, in that regard.

Daphne June 10, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Awesome post showing how important our own perceptions and lenses can be. What we see is what we get because of the way we act about what we see.

Finding truth takes many differing perspectives. It’s so much easier to simply believe that what we think is what is right.

Thanks for the (literal) eye opener!

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) June 10, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Thanks for sharing some insight about how boys are taught to mistrust girls during their school years~ explains much of the miscommunications I see nowadays between genders.

Methinks it’s great you are wandering and wondering~ glad your scheduling self has stepped aside for a bit ~:-)

Let’s reclaim some symbols (reconstruct) to achieve social and environmental harmony (there will still be some violence. only not as much).

I say start with the words we use daily , which are simply symbols.

For example, I am the proud host of a piece of anatomy that is considered to have the worst word in the English language to describe it~ have one, am proud!

If more people read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, literature on prehistoric art and the root (haha) of the word (power, potency, strength)~ we might find ourselves NOT oppressing those that “that word” represents.

Cause it is what this symbol is used for nowadays~ oppression.

David June 11, 2010 at 4:32 am

I will write a post on words as symbols, because it affects our lives so deeply. Politics, the economy, international relations… pretty much all of it hinges heavily on symbols and what they mean to us. Pretty much any time a human being thinks, symbols are at play.

Kat June 10, 2010 at 7:05 pm

As someone of Indian heritage who has both drawn and seen many completely well-intentioned swastikas, I thank you for this post. So much of what we think of as symbolism is done in our own minds that we often forget that the symbol in itself is still free to be whatever one interprets it to be. Thank you.

murali June 11, 2010 at 1:15 am

Very interesting post David. As usual, food for thought, and you are right about symbolism. When I first saw the picture, I said “looks like what my mom draws, though facing the wrong way :-)” At home, we draw it left-facing, and still do to this day.

Keep up the wonderful insights.


Kap June 12, 2010 at 5:02 am

An interesting read.
Some of the things you talk about in this article sound a lot like cognition and development. The stuff about symbolic associations makes me think of the psychologist Bruner whose theory was about child development and how we go through a phase where we begin to develop symbolic functions. You should read up on it if you’re interested.

David June 12, 2010 at 7:19 pm

I just took a loot at some Bruner material on the web and it looks really interesting. Thanks for the tip.

ToScaredToPostName June 13, 2010 at 8:53 am

From a guy who once struggled with life, I get the impression, how did you get so wize? I always try to make a smart impression on people but still there is that empty void im my head where I wish was something usefull to get by with.
Who’s your teacher?

nice post by the way

David June 16, 2010 at 9:03 pm

My life went from pretty good to pretty bad in a short time when I was in college, and I really wanted to figure out why. So I read everything I could about what makes people happy and what makes them unhappy. I kept what worked and threw out what didn’t. So I have had many teachers.

gustavo June 15, 2010 at 12:23 pm

You’re Right. The idea of the thing is not the thing.

I’m just wondering: are you writing by instinct, or you have a kind of frame philosophy you are trying to consolidate?

Either way is okay. I like your posts. I think some of them (like this one) nail down what many of us have thought, one time or another, and not had been able to congruently state.

David June 16, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Good question gustavo. I just write what I think, and it isn’t always consistent with itself. Sometimes I change my mind or discover a new way of looking at things. Over time though, a certain philosophy seems to be emerging, I think. In the coming months I’ll probably release a longer piece consolidating it all.

Marley June 16, 2010 at 12:25 am

I remember seeing the swastika as a pattern around the top of a building in Tianjin; it was a shock at first, but once you learn the history of the symbol, it makes sense. Also, Swastika, Ontario is pronounced Swas-tee-ka, instead of the “tih” sound that it regularly takes. I was hoping you’d mention a little about the town and its history :D Great post!

David June 16, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Some people do pronounce the symbol that way too. Sounds more exotic :)

CK June 22, 2010 at 12:38 am

This discussion brings to mind some of Sontag’s writing in “On Photography.” I highly recommend it. But yes, the swastika — coming from a country in which I’ve seen it painted as an auspicious symbol over people’s doors, I found it extremely difficult to adapt my perception of it to the more widely accepted Western perception of it when I lived i North America. Then, after some years, I suddenly realized one day that I had started perceiving it as a negative symbol. This was a huge realization for me, and made me very conscious of how my environment affected my perception. A swastika is only important when we imbue it with significance, be that positive or negative, which is when it becomes a symbol. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of lines. A photo is only meaningful to us when we find something in it that brings to mind a memory, or a dream.

David June 22, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Thanks for your comment, CK. The swastika must have caused so many misunderstandings over the years. On Photography sounds excellent.

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