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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 starts:

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 it’s 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:

Sky 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.

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Metaphorical Life