The Metaphor Monster

Metaphors are powerful things.

One of the richest men in the world made his fortune with a simple metaphor: Windows. Other metaphors are kind of inexplicable: does this, has this ever looked like a mouse? Advertisers use it when they want to really get you, and it can lead to the most amazing compliments you’ll ever hear:

…you’re more awesome than a monkey wearing a tuxedo made out of bacon riding a cyborg unicorn with a lightsaber for the horn on the tip of a space shuttle closing in on Mars while engulfed in flames…and in case you didn’t know, that’s pretty dang sweet. – Flint, Fourth-Grader, to a visiting Meteorologist

Similes are safer, like metaphor-lite (see what I did there?). If you say someone is like something, or that something has similar qualities, it’s safer. Both items still retain their individual identities, and you can just appreciate the common ground between them.

Angel, by Mueck (via MetroPilot - Flickr CC)

A metaphor, though – that’s not saying something is like something else, it’s saying that it is something else. “You’re acting like an ass” is not as rough as “You’re an ass.” Or let’s be positive: which would you rather hear: “You’re like a beautiful angel,” or “You are a beautiful angel.

See the difference? It’s profound.

With Great Power Comes Great Problems

Problem is, metaphors are so powerful that sometimes they have unintended consequences. Do you think the people who wrote the gospels had this in mind when they quoted Jesus Christ’s “This is my blood…this is my body”? I would hope not. Similes are much more accurate – because two separate things, no matter how similar, are two separate things (just ask my daughters Danielle & Danica how much they like being referred to as “The Twins”).

We run into the same problems in our lives, because we like metaphors. The ever-ebullient Havi over at FluentSelf, with some help from the work of Suzette Elgin, has invented a meta-metaphor in the form of MetaphorMouse, the superhero who helps create positive metaphors such as her Skabbatical.

Both those links are well worth reading, by the way, both for the a-ha moments and for the great example Havi sets for examining the metaphors you use for their positive and negative qualities.

This is important. Because if we simply allow the metaphors to exist unexamined, we will take all of the traits of whatever concept we’re using – even the ones that don’t apply. Suddenly the metaphor starts causing problems, because we apply the other qualities to it as well.

A Real-Life Example

Here’s where I get a little personal and vulnerable, so bear with me. This is extreme blogging, out there on the edge of personal revelation! Wheee!

A while back I was discussing the idea of love and relationships being “constructed” with a friend. We talked a lot about the process of creating intimacy and consent between two people to gradually build the structure of a relationship that could then be filled with the experiences and little sweet habits and traditions that make each relationship unique.

The obvious metaphor was a building a house, right? You can talk about how communication is the framework, the more solid the better, and how you have to “purchase” common ground before you can build, and how you can decorate haphazardly or take exquisite care to hand-craft the furnishings in your House of Love…

Appealing, isn’t it? Hell, I’ll probably go deeper into it some Friday.

At one point, though, my friend looked at me and asked “So, how’s your house of love coming along?” And that’s when the metaphor slapped me in the face.

I realized that when I put myself in that idea-structure, that the personal feeling went like this (and yes, it came to me in exactly this sentence):

Love is putting all your time and energy into building the house of your dreams so that you can sit inside and watch it crumble around you.

Love Shack?

I know, how much more emo can you get? Suddenly I couldn’t shake that image, that idea that simply because relationships I’ve invested myself in haven’t turned out the way I hoped. And this is certainly getting in the way of it happening in the future.

It gets even more insidious: my friend observed “Wow. That’s a very Don Draper attitude towards love.” In case you’re not familiar with the series Mad Men, he sums up his character in the very first episode:

The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.

Now, I’m not nearly that bad. And I promise, I’ll never try to sell you nylons. But I realized that lately I’ve even been changing my wardrobe towards a “retro” style – wearing a hat outside, wingtip shoes, button suspenders, cufflinks. I had thought it was just a fun little style change…but I also have to recognize that it is a subtle reinforcement of a pretty negative metaphor.

Step One: Recognize the Problem

And here is where the Great Blogger, having expressed the idea and identified the problem, reveals the solution with a flourish and a triumphant “Ta-DAAAAAA!!”

Nope. None of that here. I have not figured out how to unstick even my own metaphor, much less yours. In fact, if you do figure out how to do it, let me know, ok?

What I do know is that everyone, at all levels of their existence, are subjected to metaphors of one sort or another. At a larger-life level, for example, the U.S. has had so many “Wars on…” vague concepts that the word has almost lost meaning – while at the same time soldiers who are in activities that look a lot like war are told they are in “police actions” or some other euphemism. “Women are from Mars, Men are from Venus” (wait, did I get that mixed up? Maybe I’ve known different men & women than the author) is another unfortunate metaphor that perhaps does more harm than good.

So take a look around. Are the metaphors in your life helping you?

1 thought on “The Metaphor Monster”

  1. Yes, metaphor is a two-edged sword. (Ah! See what *I* did there?)

    Sure, a metaphor like the House of Love can be obvious and appealing, and helpful in many ways. And if we confuse metaphor (which is by its nature an imperfect comparison) with the actual-thing-itself, confusion and discomfort can certainly ensue. And… even then, a new angle on the metaphor can sometimes bring it back to usefulness.

    For instance, your feeling that “Love is putting all your time and energy into building the house of your dreams so that you can sit inside and watch it crumble around you.”

    As a homeowner, I see things in my house crumble and get dirty and need repair, and eventually I take action to correct those things to the best of my ability. Sometimes this is too little, too late, and major repairs need to occur. Other times, I see what needs doing and I take care of it before it becomes a big project. And still other times I am able to do preventative maintenance so a noticeable problem never occurs in the first place. When I do need to undertake big projects, they are learning experiences that I can carry with me. They help me make better choices around similar situations in the future, whether in this house or in another.

    And even when I sometimes feel frustrated or overwhelmed by what seems like constant work I can’t keep up with, I don’t just sit there and watch the place fall apart for very long. Eventually I remember “Hey, I like this place and I want to keep it nice, for me – it’s worth the work!” I’m greedy that way. Furthermore, my innate sense of stewardship is strong – when I am gone, I want this house to be a good home for others; after all, the people who were here before kept it nice for me. So if eventually I no longer have the ability to keep up with the work of maintaining the place, that’s when it’s time to seek outside help in doing so, or to move along to somewhere that is a better fit for me and vice-versa, for both our sakes.

    And I see a house as a verb, not a noun. It is not an unchanging object – it’s always showing me new things to do with it, both as it needs repair and as I get creative ideas for improving it for the joy of it. And so I come to understand that ever-arising work is the nature of the householder’s game. When I am clear about how that is a good thing for me, that’s when I suddenly find I enjoy and appreciate doing the work that originally intimidated me, drained me, and caused me to feel resentment. In fact, the working transforms into a sort of playing, it has a lightness and satisfaction, and it feels like self-love.

    And sometimes, yes, it still just feels like sweeping the damn dirty floor AGAIN. And the next day or week, I remember to play it like a game and I feel renewed.

    On another note – moving out of a crumbling house doesn’t make my years there a failure, not does it undo or invalidate anything I learned, loved, celebrated, and enjoyed there – it’s simply become evident that it’s time for the next stretch of the path for me, and an opportunity for someone else to come love the house in the way it needs. Some people truly love fixer-uppers, after all. There’s no problem in leaving a house behind unless I am clinging to an idea that it was supposed to have turned out differently. (If that is the case, I ask myself what I am still getting from holding on to that idea? Obviously I’m using that belief for something and getting something I think is valuable from it, or I wouldn’t cling to it so tenaciously. )

    And of course where the House of Love metaphor falls apart entirely is that a relationship is not, in fact, a house. Within the limits of my physical, mental, and financial abilities, I have almost complete control over how to maintain my own house. Not so with the depths of another human being’s inner quirks and foibles – the best I can do there is enter into collaboration and partnership with them for as long as it serves us both, and do my best to love them AND me as deeply as I possibly can. And sometimes, however surprisingly and improbably, I suddenly find that I am Home.

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