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.
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.
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?