Recently, I overheard a conversation on the bus. Two girls were talking about how difficult it was for them to live with their parents now that they go to college. They said that their parents seemed more crazy every day because now they (the girls) were more mature and spent less time home. One girl talked about how her mother calls her every morning before she goes to class and asks her if she ate, gets her reply (“No, I’m not hungry.”) and then starts complaining on the phone: “You have to eat before class. You cannot not eat, it’s important that you eat.” And then she said to her friend how sad her parents seem now, and how she calls her mom here and there, asks her what she’s doing and gets a lethargic, sad report along the lines of: “Well… *sigh*… Nothing. You know. The usual. Your dad and I, we’re home, in the kitchen.” It seems that her parents spend most of their days now sitting in the kitchen, occasionally talking to one another, without much to say, more or less bored and lethargic and sad.
The girl was annoyed/incredulous that they lead their existence in such a way, but didn’t feel like she could help them and just felt kind of… sorry for them.
This conversation got me thinking about how her parents must see their lives as opposed to how certain other people see life, which reminded me of maybe the most valuable lesson I learned during my college education, something that was mentioned as a standard part of the Semantics class, and to which nobody seemed to be freaking out, or at least find it revolutionary, or even interesting: HUMANS UNDERSTAND LIFE THROUGH METAPHOR.
Everything in your life is a metaphor
Metaphors like “Life is an ocean” or “Love is a flower” or “Man is a wolf” are not just poetic devices. They are not just to be used in literature, as a nice and innovative way to compare things. We very literally think IN METAPHOR. We actually conceptualize the world around us using other things we already know. Lakoff and Johnson have a fine paper on this, if anyone wants to read it (at least read the examples so you get the picture).
We think in metaphor and we talk in metaphor. And we see our own lives in metaphor. You will have very different attitudes and do different things if you view your life as a train journey, opposed to your life being a wild, vast ocean. You could have many more metaphors. Maybe you see yourself as a wildfire, burning bright and consuming everything around you, becoming greater and greater. And maybe you see yourself as a forest: you provide wood, food, shelter to those in need, and you are deep, mysterious, and not easily traversed and known.
DO YOU SEE HOW IMPORTANT IT IS WHICH EXACT METAPHOR OR METAPHORS RULE YOUR LIFE?
You will do different things!
Someone that sees themselves as a lion will not do the same thing that see themselves as a miner stuck in a mine (I’ve heard both).
A lion will take risks, a lion will be aggressive, a lion will be territorial, a lion will be spontaneous and will be “true to himself” (whatever that may be), a lion will be a leader, a lion will not flinch from drawing blood, a lion will enter conflicts, a lion will fight, a lion will see other lions as competition, and everybody else will be seen as gazelle (inferior, food source).
Do you see how differently this person behaves in life than a miner stuck in a mine?
A miner stuck in a mine sees a hole through which light shines, but he is currently surrounded by darkness. This miner has to be slow, methodological and consistent. He cannot take stupid risks because he will die. He must slowly and carefully dig day in and day out, being meticulous, being diligent. He must work hard every day, and every day that hole is a bit bigger, and every day he is a bit closer to the light, and every day he comes closer to his goal.
Lions will make different choices in the same situations as miners. Our metaphors of life and of ourselves are the only thing we have in life.
It is possible to think about your life in more than one way, of course. Maybe you are sometimes a lion, sometimes an unmovable mountain, sometimes a card-player, sometimes a mysterious forest.
The parents of the girl from the beginning of this text certainly don’t see themselves as two wildfires, quick to consume everything on their path, becoming greater and burning brighter every day. More likely they see themselves as beds, or homes, or cradles. How different (and probably more interesting) their lives would be if only they saw themselves in another metaphor! Instead of being a (currently unused) home for their children, why not see themselves as heroes and wizards, slaying dragons and searching for magical powers? They would not sit idly in the kitchen, leading a bored existence, and their daughter would not see them as flowers that need her care and attention.
It makes a lot of sense to pay special attention to your metaphors of life and self. You really will make different choices, depending on how you see yourself and life, as well as others around you.
Metaphors in rhetoric
Different metaphors of life are often the reason why some people absolutely cannot understand each other. Sometimes changing someone’s perspective is as simple as giving them a different metaphor (doesn’t have to be true): “What do you mean refugees are going to destroy this country? (person has metaphor of country as something pure, untainted) This land is a complex organism, and yes, we might be a little shaken up by something new, but when you get sick from one disease, you get an immunity to it, and then you’re stronger than before! (person now sees refugees as something that will strengthen the country instead of weakening it)”
Of course, it is not always so simple, but it is surprising how strongly swayed people will be. Inception, that’s what it is. You’ve planted a different picture in their heads now, and they cannot get rid of it. Maybe they still won’t change their opinion, but this is a formidable tactic in rhetoric. (Be extra careful not to get caught with it yourself; false analogy is an enemy).
What are the metaphors of your life? Are you a mysterious forest? Are you a noble knight? Is your life a journey or is it an ocean? Are your fellow men wolves or sheep?
Don’t simply find out what your metaphors are. Try to think critically about them. How do they influence you? Would you like to make different choices, lead a different lifestyle, but you cannot because your metaphor stops you?
Leave a comment.
Or don’t, if you’re a mysterious forest. Go listen to some Lana del Rey.