omnibus omnia

Why milestones are milestones

In Birthday, Christianity, Culture, Ethics, God, Grace, Holidays, Language, Life, Liturgy, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Sacraments, Spirituality, Theology, Values on January 6, 2009 at 00:21

To call an event a milestone and mark it with some little ritual is to affirm of the meaning of life… (This is a revision of our earlier post, which bore the pompous–as well as faux-pop–title “The (sort of) semiotics of milestones“. Unfortunately, most of the said post was written in that most wakeful of times, 1 to 4 a.m., Manila time, so the post that emerged was meandering and rather unreadable. Hence this revision.)

The word ‘milestone’ is one of those figurative expressions that have become literal through sheer length of usage, not to mention the loss of its original meaning. The literal meaning was, of course, perfect for the metaphor. Milestones began as–what else?–stone markers (actually columns) along Roman roads, strewn by their justly-respected engineers throughout their vast empire, that indicated the distance from the capital of the Empire. Hence the metaphor, for events of such significance that they starkly demarcate the past from the still unfinished future, an especially potent temporal symbol for the linear ideologies of the West.

Which is my first point: it’s a symbol. More specifically, it’s a metaphor, which is a strange kind of symbol that has 4 receptacles of meaning instead of the usual 3. In the usual way of things, (1) a word (say ‘milestone’ in English) refers to (2) a “concept” (in our case, the general concept of a stone placed to indicate the distance in miles), which refers to (3) a particular thing (that is, one of those stones we see on Roman roads). Leaving aside the question of convention and abstraction, that’s what happens with ordinary words, the kind of mean-ing we call literal. But in metaphors, there’s an additional step: the particular thing in turn refers to (4) another thing or concept. In this case, the actual milestone signifies another thing, those acts/events that seem to overshadow other acts/events in the life of a person or group.

To complicate things, ‘milestone/s’ isn’t even an ordinary metaphor, it’s also what might be called an “efficacious sign”, which is defined as a sign that causes or brings about what it signifies in the very act of signifying it. Say, A signifies B. However, at the same time A itself causes B. In that case, A is what is called an efficacious sign or a “sacrament” in the larger sense of the word.

Let’s use a political example, one familiar to people who like world history. Remember when the United States formally recognized the government of the Soviet Union (on a mere scrap of State Department paper, to brutalize Bethmann-Hollweg’s infamous expression about the treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality)? It was a mere symbol-after all, the Communist Party wouldn’t go away even if the US didn’t recognize it-but that symbol, in a sense, caused what it symbolized, because the recognition of the USSR’s government caused it to be a government, at least in the legal sense, in US courts. It was a symbol that gave to USSR’s government sovereign immunity in US courts, and that allowed it to send ambassadors that the FBI couldn’t touch even when they did spying. Leaving aside the declarative/constitutive debate, because that recognition was a symbol that also brought about what it symbolized, then it was an efficacious sign, a ‘sacrament’.

For more anon, I recommend an essay by Jacques Maritain in his book Redeeming the Time (which I read some centuries ago), but anyway, we may apply his insights here by noting that it is the very act of calling an act/event a ‘milestone’, in a “mystical” fashion, that makes it a milestone.

To explain, let’s begin by asking, just why are conception and death, graduation and marriage, the first day at work and the last day in one’s native country, or a birthday, especially one of the big-0 birthdays (30th, 40th, 50th, and 60th) really ‘milestones’? From a purely materialist perspective, none of those acts/events is physically more “significant” or more “meaningful” than other acts/events. I don’t mean to be cold-hearted here, but we must admit that even death, materially speaking, is no exception. It is simply one step in the process by which an organism goes from functioning as an integrated biochemical system to one that doesn’t.

Now, what happens when we call something a ‘milestone’? We make the value judgment that this act/event is somehow more significant than others before it or after (and ‘significant’, by the way, means that it signifies, that it is especially meaningful or perhaps meaning-full). We give it “milestone-value”. However, this “milestone-value” is not materially present in the act/event, which is physically just another step along the road of time. So, when we sacramentally call an act/event a milestone, we are actually giving to or recognizing in a material change a spiritual significance.

But what is a value-judgment? It is simply an application of love. Why else do I consider chocolate better than broccoli, or vice versa, if not because I like sweet taste or nutrition better? In a higher sense, don’t we say that being away from a favorite family member is bad (a value judgment) because we love the family member and the feeling of being together (object of love)? We say something is good/bad, higher/lower according to its relation, or the relation it gives us, to an object of love. Therefore, (ignoring the nominalist-realist or empiricist-idealist controversy among old philosophers), we may say that to call something a milestone is, in terms of what it does, an act of intending founded on love.

To digress, I must note here that ‘love’ of course means much more than just romance or sex, or the emotion of delight. We may love God or the deities, our parents and our country with reverence, our friend with fraternal affection; a Christian may also love the Summa and St. Peter’s, Dante’s Comedy and Bach’s Mass in B Minor as oh-so-dazzling fusions of faith and genius; and I like pizza, pasta, and chocolate despite my doctor’s despairing prohibitions. Love really (and very widely) means freely needing, giving to, or revering a person, thing, or quality. We love when we see and choose the object of love as a basis of meaning, a world of its own that revolves around and is illumined by the One loved most.

Getting back to the point, we identify an act/event as a milestone because it is more meaning-full than other acts/events; and it is more meaning-full because it especially affects or implicates an object of love. Thus, big-0 (30th, 40th…) birthdays are milestones because they involve the love of youth; leaving for college or a new country (which, by the way, is what college often feels like) involves the love of home; marriage and (Heaven forbids) divorce implicates the love of one’s spouse; and the love of life is involved in conception, birth, and death. We love; therefore the object of love is significant (a word that it signifies, it is meaning-full); therefore the act/event that affects the object of love is significant. It is, above other acts/events, a milestone.

In this sense, therefore to mark a milestone with some little ritual, like taking out an old wedding video or blowing candles or saying set prayers, is an affirmation of the significance and meaning-fullness of life against the void that constantly lurks beneath our joys. Even to mark a person’s passing with rituals is to proclaim meaning, despite the plunge into chaos that the event itself often opens for us. As anyone who has grieved would know, last rites and funerals have a strange healing effect; but why? I think it’s because through those rituals we declare that the one who’s gone was not a mere mass of atoms and compounds, but a person, with a unique significance that can never be denied and can never be replaced, so that cosmic time becomes divided into the time s/he was with us and the time s/he is not. The emptiness s/he leaves behind therefore becomes not an existential void, a clawing abyss that looketh back at one condemned to be free, but a memory of one who was raised in conception from nothingness to being and was raised in death from time to eternity, and in between knew and was known, loved and was loved.

That applies, in different ways, to all meaning-filled acts/events. Why else are New Years and weddings and awarding of military decorations so ritualized, if not for how they remind us of the meanings that they are pregnant with, which are symbolized by fireworks and the ball on Times Square (which, BTW, is a tawdry-looking place outside the holidays), the march down the aisle to say “I do” (instead of just signing the certificate), the men in attention and the drumroll? This may be why the most ancient religions mark life-transitions and time-transitions with rich symbolism (think baptism and Rosh Hashanah) and associate them with some spiritual value. For to mark the transition is precisely to spiritualize it. It is to deny that what happened was just atoms and quanta exchanging spaces; it is to say that here, now, matter is marked by spirit, and the relative and limited becomes a door for the noumenal, the absolute, the divine.

This richness of symbolism is more pronounced in time-transitions like the Jewish Passover and the Hindu Kumbh Mela that commemorate “theophanies” (divine self-revelations), which remember how the deity/deities made a moment significant through an act of favor or kindness. This reaches “semiotic” (sign-making) heights in the Eucharist, a ritual that, to Christians, is at once symbol and remembrance, perpetuation and outpouring of the sacrifice of God-made-man for our salvation. The heightened ritual significance has a reason, for it is especially Divine self-revelations that remind us that milestones, because they are rooted in love, are also rooted in reality. For human love is an objective fact founded, in turn, on the objective fact that we were loved first: that One who, in absolute freedom, loves us absolutely, even unto death says Christianity, knew us already in the womb, and has written our names in the palm of His hand.

In short, to mark a milestone to see the world as it is, as a plane of matter that signifies the heights of spirit, for every milestone does two things: It admits that time is fleeting because matter is changing, but it also affirms that life is meaningful because love remains, as eternal and ineffable as the One who, because He loves us, makes us worthy of love.

May God bless us all.

  1. I wish you’d write a book review of sorts on the Geometry of Love, or connect it with this essay of yours.

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