The Treachery of Images

The treachery of images

Images and symbols play a huge role in our lives. Centuries ago, alphabets were created to symbolize the spoken word. Cave walls, pottery and stone were used to used to create images to depict religious beliefs and historical events. Today, I could probably show you a number of company logos and you could come up with a short list of things those logos symbolize for you. For example, the Nutella logo is a universal symbol of happiness.

We get in to trouble sometimes with images, though. For some reason, we start to confuse the image for what it is supposedly representing. For example, does the word Kleenex stand for the company that produces tissues, or the tissue itself? What about Band-Aids, QTips, and Xerox? Historically, symbols have been twisted to fit some rather dubious agendas. For example, use of the swastika dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization, which ended around 1,300 B.C. and in Sanskrit literally means “to be good.” But when you see it, it means something entirely different, doesn’t it?


Likewise, the cross is the universal symbol of Christianity, an image that evokes the passion of Christ, whose death brought life and light into the world. But the cross was also used in a definite non-Christian way by the Ku Klux Klan, who would burn one on a hillside near the homes of those they wished to intimidate.

How someone could twist these two symbols that were so pure, and to do what they did with them is beyond me, but what’s the point of all this?

In the picture above, you think you see a pipe. But the artist, René Magritte, specifically wrote below it to emphasize, “This is not a pipe.” Clever. But just like the title of the painting, which also so happens to be the title of this post, images can be treacherous when we start to allow symbols to be twisted into making us think they are something they aren’t.

The definition of being wealthy is often symbolized by the images you see all over commercials: huge house, nice foreign cars, name brand clothing and accessories, jewelry, the newest electronics, fancy vacations, and the list goes on. The problem? Most people who spend their time and money on all those things aren’t rich. They may look rich; they may even have a high income, how many times have we heard about multi-millionaire celebrities going bankrupt?

In The Millionaire Next Door, authors Thomas Stanley and William Danko show years of studies done on the wealthy, hoping to find the common thread. What they found was that even though the symbols of wealth that we are used to focus on the things you obtain with your money (or someone else’s via credit cards), the true measure of wealth is actually how much of your money you keep. They give countless examples of attorneys, surgeons, and the like, who earned hundreds of thousands per year and had close to zero wealth. They also interviewed a number of people who earned less than $100,000 a year and still managed to have over $1 million in assets. Do you think those were the type of people you see in ads and on TV? That’s a negative, Ghost Rider. In fact, they could live next door to you, hence the title of the book, and you would have no idea.

Which one would you rather be? The image of wealthy or the real deal?


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