When’s the last time you took a wound from words or were struck down by a glance?
We all know these things can’t *literally* hurt us in the same way that a wound or a strike can. But, since they cause emotional pain, it’s useful to use the metaphors – figures of speech – of physical hurt to talk about them.
Metaphors are abundant. In a favorite example I like to borrow from Metaphors We Live By, debates are battles in which opponents take positions, go on the offensive or defensive, or gain or lose ground. Like farmers we “reap the consequences” of our past actions. Life is a journey. Forgiving and being forgiven is like washing yourself off.
Forming metaphors about everyday actions is automatic. But are our metaphors always beneficial?
For quite a lot of people (especially people who listen to any kind of popular music), love is alternately a burning fire, an all-consuming hunger, a prowling hunter, a tempest, madness, or a possessing goddess. The list goes on.
Think about this for second. If you choose this set of metaphors, it becomes MUCH more difficult to exercise good judgment in love. If your metaphors have cast love as something uncontrollable and wild and mindless, your experience of love will be uncontrollable and wild and mindless. That can be fun, but it has never, ever, ever ended well.
The problem at the root of these views of “love,” for instance, is that these metaphors, while partly true and partly descriptive, are not the full story of what love is.
You can abstain from sex and not be literally burn up or literally starve. You can spend time away from a partner and not be suffocated. You can also love someone deeply and not have wild passion at top of mind every time you see them.
In other words, a healthy love is as much a gentle breath as it is a tempest. It’s as much a still water as a burning fire. When we neglect one set of metaphors for the other, we make the mistake of taking our metaphors for a thing too far.
Metaphors exist to help us approach the reality of something we can’t fully describe without images. They are concepts, not objects. They are tools to describe reality, not gods that rule it. As such, they are not meant to be taken as absolute.
The next time you find yourself acting destructively on a whim or impulse, stop, collaborate with reality, and listen. You may not have considered the other side of the story you are telling yourself about what you are doing, whether it’s a romantic relationship or a project at work. If your way of dealing with these parts of life are unsustainable, you may be enslaved to a metaphorical narrative about what those parts of life must be like. You may be missing some metaphors from your metaphor toolkit. You may be taking your present metaphors much further than they can actually go.
For all their usefulness and beauty, metaphors have a dark side, too. Words are inescapable, and they can change your experience of reality. Don’t underestimate their importance.