Life Is. . .

The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him.

·    José Ortega y Gasset

One day, when my son Joshua was about six or seven years old, he came home crying hysterically because one of his friends fell of some playground equipment at school and died. I sat down with Josh and said, "Honey, I know how you feel. You miss him, and you should feel those feelings. But you should also realize that you feel this way because you're a caterpillar." He said, "What?" I had broken his pattern a little bit. I said "You're thinking like a caterpillar." He asked me what I meant.

"There's a point," I said, "where most caterpillars think they have died. They think life has ended. When is that?" He said, "Oh, yeah, when that thing starts wrapping around them." I said, "Yeah, pretty soon the caterpillar gets wrapped in its cocoon, buried by all this stuff. And you know what? If you were to open up that cocoon, the caterpillar is no longer there. There's just all this mush and goo and stuff. And most people, including the caterpillar, thinks it's dying. But really it's beginning to transform. Do you understand? It is going from one thing to something else. And pretty soon, what does it become?" And he said, "A butterfly."

I asked, "Can the other little caterpillars on the ground see that this caterpillar became a butterfly?" He said, "No." I said, "And when a caterpillar breaks out of the cocoon, what does he do?" Joshua said, "He flies." I said "Yeah, he gets out and the sunlight dries off his wings and he flies. He's even more beautiful than when he was a caterpillar. Is he more free or less free?" Josh said, "He's much more free." And I said, "Do you think he'll have more fun?" And he said, "Yeah - he's got less legs to get tired!" And I said, "That's right, he does. He doesn't need legs anymore; he's got wings. I think your friend has wings now.

"You see, it's not for us to decide when somebody becomes a butterfly. We think it's wrong, but I think God has a better idea when the right time is. Right now it's winter and you want it to be summer, but God has a different plan. Sometimes we just have to trust that God knows better how to make butterflies better than we do. And when we're caterpillars, sometimes we don't even realize that butterflies exist, because they're up above us - but maybe we should just remember that they're there." And Joshua smiled, gave me a big hug and said, "I bet he's a beautiful butterfly."

Metaphors can change the meaning you associate to anything, change what you link pain and pleasure to, and transform you life as effectively as they transform your language. Select them carefully, select them intelligently, select them so they will deepen and enrich your experience of life and that of the people you care about. Become a "metaphor detective." Whenever you hear someone using a metaphor that places limits, just step in, break their pattern, and offer a new one. Do this with others and do it with yourself.

Anthony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within ©1991

Ay, note that Potter’s wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,—
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,
“Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!”

·    Robert Browning, from the poem Rabbi Ben Ezra

Metaphors explicitly or implicitly identify one phenomenon with another phenomenon from which the first is literally distinct. A game of chess may thus be characterized as a "battle" of wits; a leading citizen may be described as a "pillar" of the community. In each instance, the metaphor suggests an image or experience that emphasizes a specific quality (here, competition or support) of its referent. Metaphors are generally offered to illuminate their referents' sense or significance; they are most useful and most successful in this respect when they associate an unfamiliar and/or abstract referent with something familiar and/or concrete. At the same time, the very specificity, familiarity, and tangibility that may recommend a metaphor may incidentally enable it to obscure and distort. Calling chess a battle distracts attention from the cooperative aspects of that game; calling a leading citizen a pillar of the community hides the benefits she derives from leadership. Paradoxically, the better a metaphor is, the worse this kind of problem threatens to become. In extreme circumstances, a good metaphor may be so compelling that it altogether subverts its referent's original meaning. No longer recognized as a metaphor, it redefines truth on its own limited terms.

Assuming metaphors to be products of the imagination, conventional wisdom has traditionally identified them with the arts of poetry and literature. Many metaphors certainly appear in these contexts, but metaphors can also be found in other more overtly analytic realms. Historians routinely call a portion of the early medieval period the "Dark Ages." There was, of course, no more darkness in the "Dark Ages" than in any other time, before or since; the term "Dark" is a metaphor designed to suggest ignorance and barbarism. Scientists similarly speak of super-dense collapsed stars as "black holes." But "black holes" are not really holes; the term "hole" is a metaphor chosen to communicate the fact that neither matter nor light can escape the gravitational pull of these bodies.

I use metaphor every day. Someone has done wrong by me, they may be characterized as a backstabber. (Ouch!) The weather is warm, hotter than hell, in fact. (Like I know for certain just how hot hell is!) The day drags on. (Same pace as always, one minute at a time.) Build a fire under someone to get them to take action. (Do you think they will stand still while you do? Won't they wonder what you are doing?)

While metaphors use powerful imagery to drive a subtle point home, they gain a power of their own when used in a positive way. When people ask me how I am doing today, my response is one my grandfather used often. Grampa had such a dry sense of humor, so dry that his quiet chuckle was all I ever heard, accompanied by an incredible twinkle of the eye. My response is usually that I am "finer than frog's hair" or "if I was any better I couldn't stand myself." In other words, I am having a great day. It brings a smile to the person who asked, and where before they were simply making conversation, they are now trying to visualize just how fine my life might be at that moment. And the lift which this comment gives a simple social conversation comes back to me, buoys me up and brightens my day, even more.

How I use metaphor reveals a great deal about me to others. At the same time, it reinforces my thought processes in pathways that become familiar with use. Howard Cosell unwittingly revealed his racial bias when he referred to an African-American football player as "that little monkey." In this context, metaphors operate as the "sonar" of my mind, revealing deeply submerged - but nonetheless fundamental - realities that I cannot or will not consciously acknowledge. Finding and adopting useful, positive metaphors can plant seeds of positive thought, speech and action, by feeding the subconscious a positive message to mull over and store for later use.

Metaphors often become labels. What labels are empowering in our relationships? I often refer to my wife as "my lovely bride," while another man may refer to his wife as "the ol' ball and chain." A woman I know calls her husband "The Prince of Darkness." Metaphors should not be casually adopted, because some metaphors are more toxic than others.

Most everyone has heard someone, somewhere, say that "life is a bitch," or something similar. What message is that person giving themself each time they utter those words? What did you feel when you heard it, or if you had not ever heard it before, how did you feel when you read that? How would you finish the sentence, "Life is. . ."

When things look bleak, you may feel that it will "go on forever." Tony Robbins suggests the idea that "Life has its seasons, and I'm in winter right now." Spring will surely follow, growth and change is coming, and things will get better. Plant some positive metaphors in there, and things cannot help but improve!

As an exercise in understanding metaphor, I cannot more highly recommend Karen L. Oberst, the Quotelady who has devoted a special page of her website to this subject in "I am a Writer, a Study in Metaphor." I think you might enjoy reading her thoughts, and I would encourage you to sit down at your breakfast table tomorrow morning and jot down a few of your thoughts in the same way. What do you do in your life, and what is doing it like? How can you be positive about it, what humorous or empowering metaphors can you adopt?

Start with these, or come up with your own:

Life is             
Love is             
Joy is             
Peace is             
My work is             

Until next week, I'm going to make like a tree and leaf. (Ouch!)



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