Saturday, March 6, 2010

Signs

I've always wondered how much metal, paint and plastic goes into making all of the signs strewn throughout our lives -- giving information or directions, offering caution, invoking or prohibiting action, and promoting products or ideas. We can barely walk anywhere in public without a deluge of signs inundating our vision.


The sign in the photo above is located on the University of Illinois campus at the top of a steep staircase that leads to a sunken patio adjacent to the Institute for Genomic Biology. The staircase is narrow, with steps made of slate, and certainly a danger to the careless or those who have never walked on icy or wet stone. Rather than rely on common sense, the university (and its lawyers) determined that a reminder was necessary to warn people of the potential hazard.

So many of the signs in our public spaces warn us of hazards or give us information to find our way from one place to another. But as we make our way from the public to the private, the ubiquity of signs is replaced by scarcity. When we cross the threshold of our homes, signs disappear. With the exception of the handmade no smoking signs my mother had posted at both the front and back door of my childhood home, I can't think of any home I've ever entered that had warning or directional signs once you walked through the door.

Is the dearth of signs within our home because we don't need caution against the pitfalls of marriage and parenting? Could we not use assistance in finding our way through the intricacies of the relationships that comprise our lives?

Certainly, as our relationships evolve, we learn to read our family and friends, seeing signs in their emotion and physical expressions that give us information or warning. But humans are nuanced animals, with complex emotions and expressions that are rarely clear to understand. We don't walk around wearing signs that warn others of our undesirable tendencies or signs with explicit instructions of what we expect in our relationships.

In many ways, I think the lack of warning and directional signs in our personal lives is the source of much of the confusion and disintegration in our relationships. Too often, the warning signs are only realized in hindsight, when it is too late to avoid slipping and falling down the stairs of life.

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