Living the Metaphorical Life
The following is half of an essay from the book Sky Child.
It suggests that we are more influenced than we realize by the
metaphorical ways in which we see the world and our place in
it. We live what might be called a metaproical life. The essay
Many years ago I read a fascinating book by Julian Jaynes
called, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of
the Bicameral Mind." Yes, the length of the title was an
indicator of the length of the book, and it was a wonderful speculative
journey into how we may have developed our particular form of
consciousness. One of my favorite parts was the discussion of
metaphors and how completely they dominate our language and thinking
processes even when we do not recognize them. Jaynes got into
the details of how they are constructed, even inventing some
new words for this purpose. The "metaphrand" is the
thing described and the "metaphier" is the thing or
relation used to describe it. Then there are "paraphrands"
and "paraphiers" as well, which are the meaning-adding
concepts associated with the metaphrands and metaphiers.
More than the specific theories and ideas though, the most
interesting aspect for me was simply the recognition that the
metaphors we use can radically alter how we see things and how
we experience life. I took that lesson to heart, and since that
time I occasionally choose my metaphors more consciously than
I used to. As a result I know from experience that that a change
of perspective can come from looking at and challenging and changing
the metaphors in life, both the ones that we consciously choose
as well as the ones which are part of all the cultural dialogues
going on around us.
For example, I started seeing that employment is a business.
It is the business of selling my labor. That recognition made
it into an entirely different experience, especially as I developed
my thinking in this direction. Those who refer to themselves
as wage slaves or even call their supervisor a boss (he or she
would be a customer or client to me) almost certainly suffer
more when working at jobs they dislike, and they probably feel
less free to change the situation. I learned to just look for
new clients or I offered new service terms (I changed to working
Sundays only for one employer, and got others to buy my services
part-time when everyone else worked full-time). I used the more
general metaphor of "a job is a tool" as well, and
so I began to use jobs as tools for various purposes.
To some extent I adopted the perspective of life as an adventure
as well, though this was mostly unconscious. That made for a
better experience than I would have had living life as a duty
or journey through a valley of tears. After all these years I
still look for new metaphors to understand things in new ways.
I even have a website on "metaphorology," a term which
I thought I had invented. (I later discovered that it has been
used by authors and psychologists in the past, but hasn't yet
made it into dictionaries.)
We often miss the metaphors in life. They slide by in print
and conversation without us even noticing their metaphorical
nature or the "meta-metaphors" which they are derived
from. I was reminded of this recently while reading an article
in Forbes magazine. Prior to this I had just read "Metaphors
We Live By," the ground-breaking work by George Lakoff and
Mark Johnson, and I credit that book with reminding me about
the importance of metaphors and tuning me into the metaphorical
language all around us. The Forbes article was about a legal
service company, and the writer started it like this:
Mark Harris identified a multibillion-dollar market, built
a business to attack it and was enjoying some success when he
realized he was laying the groundwork for defeat.
That is just one sentence, and yet it says a lot about the
perspective of the writer, which is reflected in the metaphors
used and is perhaps formed by them as well. See if you can identify
some of the five metaphors in the quote.
The most obvious ones are attack and defeat.
These come from what Lakoff and Johnson would call a structural
metaphor. In this case it is; business is war.
If one thinks in those terms it almost certainly has to lead
to subsequent thoughts that are different than they would be
from the perspective of another structural metaphor, and that
means something in practice, not just in theory. For example,
in a war we tend to adopt a win at all costs approach,
which can be seen in the questionable ethics of some businessmen
who take this perspective. If your ruling or structural thought
process started with the idea that business is a servant
to the customer or a valuable social program,
you would quite naturally find different ways to make a profit.
A change of perspective is inevitable with a change of metaphors
in life, and that leads to a change in what we do.
Apart from those two examples, you may have noticed that to
say he built a business is metaphorical. It may be
the easiest way to understand the process, but it is not the
only way. We could say that he grew a business, using the structural
metaphor; a business is a plant. We could also get
away from such explicit metaphorical approaches and simply say
that he developed or organized a business or even simpler, that
he did business.
There are other metaphors barely noticeable in the sentence
as well. Laying the groundwork is such a common thing
to say that we forget the metaphorical origin. This one most
likely comes from laying out a foundation for a building in and
on the ground. Even the expression enjoying some success
is really metaphorical. It would be said even if Harris had been
clinically depressed all of the time, because its a metaphor
referring to the making of profit as being inherently pleasurable,
not a statement about his actual mental state.
The second half of this essay in Sky Child adresses
the power of spiritual metaphors, and what effects the various
ones might have on one's life. Other examples of how we live
a metaphorical life are given, along with the suggestion that
we start to consciously choose the metaphors that guide us. If
you want to read the rest of the essay (and the other nine essays
in the book), you can get Sky Child for Kindle here:
Child (At Your Own Risk Series)
If you don't own a Kindle device, Amazon makes a free version
(for you computer) available on the sales page of the book.