Your day-to-day language is drenched in metaphors that you aren't aware of. These hidden metaphors shape the way you think about the world and affect your behavior. They do this quietly, often subversively, and always powerfully. I’ve unwittingly adopted metaphors that have caused me to behave in ways that aren’t healthy.
This idea was first presented to my by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their influential book Metaphors We Live By. This post is influenced by their work along with an essay from C.S. Lewis discussing the necessity of thinking metaphorically. That essay is called “Bluspels and Flalanspheres: A Semantic Nightmare” and can be found in the book C.S. Lewis Selected Essays.
If our thinking is true then the metaphors by which we think must be good metaphors - CS Lewis
This post is to encourage you to uncover the secret metaphors embedded in your thoughts that shape who you are.
What are Metaphors
A metaphor is a way to compare two things. For example, “When I’m with you I’m at home” is a phrase with the embedded metaphor you are my home. If I said this to my wife I would not mean that she is literally the place where I reside. That doesn’t make any sense. But it isn’t literal. It is a comparison. It is metaphorical.
Metaphors Create Meaning and Define Reality
Metaphors go beyond saying what something is literally and begin to tell you why that thing matters. As a metaphor, you are my home creates meaning of our relationship. My wife is a person with whom I can unwind, rest, or retreat.
Metaphors not only create meaning but they define your reality. Accepting a metaphor makes you focus in on the things that the metaphor highlights and ignore other aspects. Metaphors, even if they are not true, can become self-fulling prophecies. Most astonishingly is this - our metaphors will change our behavior.
Conceptual Metaphors in Our Daily Language
Take for example the phrase, “I don’t follow your argument". Embedded in this phrase is a conceptual metaphor that an argument is a path. You can see this metaphor in the phrases, “I don’t like your train of thought” and “you are straying from the line of the argument.” Like a path, an argument should lead you somewhere. It is nice to think about an argument as a path. Paths are very utilitarian. Two people can take a path together. We can blaze new trails.
When Metaphors Compete
However, there is a competing metaphor more prevalent in our language which is argument is war. We see this metaphor at work when we say things like “here is my counter argument”, “your point of view is indefensible”, “his criticism was right on target” or simply “I won that debate”.
These two metaphors - argument is a path and argument is war - compete with each other. Following or creating a path can be cooperative. But a battle is combative. A path can be useful for anyone to use. But waging a war is always at the expense of someone.
The difference between a healthy discussion and a heated fight could be a poorly accepted metaphor.
Metaphors are Not Just for Poets
The most important things in life are abstract: love, hope, freedom, peace, friendship. An abstract is something that is impossible to talk about literally. The only way we can think about an abstract in a meaningful way is to talk about what it is like. We have to compare it with something else. This act of comparing is the creation of a metaphor. We are always using and creating metaphors.
It is easy to simply categorize metaphors as a nice trick that poets and storytellers use to tempt us into thinking about things in new and interesting ways. But it turns out that metaphors are not just parlor tricks. Metaphors are a fundamental part of how we think about almost everything we experience.
C.S. Lewis points out in his essay “Bluspels and Flalanspheres: A Semantic Nightmare” that all language has a figurative origin and that it is impossible to think and write in a meaningful way without using metaphors. He goes so far as to say,
“Those who have prided themselves in being literal, and who have endeavoured to speak plainly, with no mystical tomfoolery, about the highest abstractions, will be found to be among the least significant of writers… But open your Plato, and you will find yourself among the great creators of metaphor, and therefore among the masters of meaning.”
Metaphors are Sneaky
The difference between a simili and a metaphor is that a simili will clearly announce that it is using a comparison with the word “like”: “this is like that”. A metaphor is doing the same comparative work as a simili, however it is much sneakier. It drops the word “like” and boldly says “this is that”.
As a result, metaphor can be confused as an attempt to be literal. It is easy to begin to trust metaphors as literal things forgeting that the idea originated as a non-literal comparison. In fact, many words we have today came directly from metaphors that we take for granted.
A good example of this is our word spirit comes from the Latin Spiritus which means breath. In Greek the word for spirit also means breath or wind. Deeply embedded in our language the metaphor spirit is breath. This metaphor is formative to the way we think about our humanity and our spirituality.
I personally think it is a good metaphor. It is better than (and competitive with) another metaphor that is becoming very popular - our minds are computers. That new metaphor is sneaking in our language as we talk about computers having ‘memory’, ‘processing power’, and being either ‘awake’ or ‘asleep’. If our minds are simply computers than one day we will be able to download our brains into a computer and become immortal. But lets remember, it is just a metaphor. And one I wouldn't personally hang my hat on.
Since metaphors are sneaky they easily place themselves into our language and become unconscious mental guides by which we make meaning out of our experiences. Lakoff and Johnson call them “conceptual metaphors”. They are a clandestine force informing how you should think and how you should act.
Examining Our Metaphors
Okay, so metaphors are abundant, sneaky, and formative to our lives, but there is nothing sacred about our metaphors. Metaphors are not literal. They are not truth. We should feel free to discard both boring and dangerous metaphors and readily adopt new ones. We should examine all of our metaphors making sure they are coherent with everything else we believe. We should actively create new metaphors.
Here is C.S. Lewis again,
“He who would increase the meaning and decrease the meaningless verbiage in his own speech and writing, must do two things. He must become conscious of the fossilized metaphors in his words; and he must freely use new metaphors, which he creates for himself. The first depends on knowledge… the second on a certain degree of imaginative ability. The second is perhaps the more important of the two.”
Surprisingly imagination, which at one time looked like a childish activity suited for distraction or entertainment, now shows itself to be a crucial activity for living a healthy and meaningful life. Imagination enables us to break free from the slavery of dangerous metaphors.
Prophets appeal to our imagination. The role of a prophet is to get us to imagine life, ourself, god, as it really is an not as we are currently imagining it. - Ken Myers
If imagination is that important then we should prioritize poetry, art, and storytelling. We should sharpen our imaginative tools and use thier razor’s edge to slice into new territory.
A Few Metaphors to Re-Imagine
Here are a number of metaphors embedded in our language that I think might need some re-imagining. Some are really dangerous. Some are just stale. Questions to ask: Does the metaphor help or hinder my desire to be a fully human person? Does the metaphor align with my spiritual beliefs? Does the metaphor help or hurt myself and other people? What else should be on this list?
- “I fell in love” or “I am captivated by her” is from the metaphor love is a trap
- “We are wasting time” is from the metaphor time is currency
- “I can’t process that” is from the metaphor my mind is a computer
- “My emotions flared up” is from the metaphor emotions are a disease
- “I need to recharge” is from the metaphor my body is a battery
Changing a Metaphor
I have had a deep belief in the metaphor that my emotions are disobedient children. I constantly talk to myself about my emotions the way I would talk to a two year old. “Calm Down.” “Keep Still.” “Don't overreact” I don’t value the things they say to me except to me. I worry that they will act out and embarrass me.
I not only think this about my emotions but also think it about other people’s emotions. This gets me in a lot of hot water, especially with my wife. Emotions are disobedient children is a dangerous metaphor that I learned somewhere along the line. It has taken the patience of my wife, some reflection, and some re-imagining to help me find a new metaphor.
Perhaps emotions are less like disobedient children and more like watch dogs. My emotions are the first to tell me when I am threatened, they raise the alarm when I need to pay attention to something suspect. If this new metaphor is true then I shouldn’t punish my emotions for creating a ruckus, sending them off to bed without dinner. Rather, I should make sure they are well fed and listen to them carefully.
If I’ve successfully changed my conceptual metaphor about emotions it should creep into my language. I should begin to hear myself say things like: “I wonder why I’m feeling scared.” Or, “I need to pay attention to how sad this is making me.”
This, of course, isn’t the perfect or ultimate metaphor for how to think about emotions. But it's a step in the right direction.
What Metaphors Have Crept into Your Life?
In order to find them you need to first accept that metaphors are prevalent and significant. Secondly, examine the language you use and trace it down to the conceptual metaphor that it stems from. And finally, if they are not good metaphors be brave and imagine new ones.
1. Ray Kurzweil is a futurist who is popularizing the idea that our minds are nothing more than computers and once we create computers powerful enough to download the human mind we will become immortal. This is the logical result of taking the metaphor minds are computers literally.
2. This quote is from a lecture entitled "Imagination and Everyday Life" by Ken Myers which was part of a conference called Baptizing the Imagination. If you are interested in how imagination shapes us as humans I highly recommend all the lectures.
One of the greatest challenges every candidate faces when applying for fellowship or residency training, graduate school or college is deciding what to write in their personal statements. The next greatest challenge is how to write it. Everyone wants his or her personal statement to stand out from the thousands of other entries. There are 40,000 applicants for medical residency alone every year, for example. Sometimes the candidates are so concerned about how to write their personal statements—how to start, what words to use, etc.—that they lose sight of the actual content.
What Is a Metaphor?
When trying to decide how to write their personal statements, many candidates opt for using a metaphor. According to Merriam-Webster, a “metaphor” is “a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar” or “an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else.” An example would be comparing an orthopedic procedure to building a robot or working as a nurse to being a member of a field hockey team.
The Case Against Metaphors in a Personal Statement
Every year, I personally edit and critique hundreds of personal statements, and among those that stand out the most are the ones that use metaphors. However, the reason for this is most often not what the candidates have hoped.
A great example of this came last September from an outstanding candidate for medical residency. She had graduated from one of the top high schools in the nation, was attending one of the top medical schools in the nation, and had noteworthy research experience. As a medical student, she had even published a paper and presented a poster at a conference. Knowing this from her CV, what I expected to find, when turning to her personal statement, was an exemplary, well-executed essay. What I found instead was far short of the mark.
No matter what form the personal statement takes, it must convey the relevant aspects of the candidate’s background that have brought him or her to apply for the position being sought, it must convey how the position is the appropriate next step for his or her path, and it must convey where the candidate sees his or her path headed following the successful completion of the position. What she had done was decide not to follow these principles and instead write an essay devoted to her experiences on her soccer team. She had not been an exemplary player, her team had not been an exemplary team, and there was nothing in particular that stood out about the experiences she described. By contrast, they were ones anyone else on her team could have written.
While she believed focusing her personal statement on her soccer experiences would make it a shining point of her overall application, the result was the opposite. There were two key aspects that she had failed to realize. First was that, among all the medical residents who use metaphors in their personal statements, playing on a sports team—and particularly a soccer team—is the most common. Second is that, in light of her otherwise outstanding application, her failing to accomplish any of the fundamental goals of a personal statement communicated only that having to write a personal statement was a task she believed to be beneath her. Instead of communicating the breadth of her personal experiences, her personal statement, taken together with her other experiences, ended up portraying her as merely arrogant and dismissive.
Why Do Candidates Use Metaphors in a Personal Statement?
The personal statement I have just described is a great example of why candidates use metaphors in a personal statement. They believe that by doing so their stories will be automatically more interesting to read. From a technical point of view, though, it is difficult to craft a well-executed personal statement on the foundation of a metaphor. When a candidate uses a metaphor, he or she does so out of the belief that the metaphor is unique and, by extension, that it will immediately demonstrate his or her creativity and ability to think at a higher level. Because this concept is so attractive, and because candidates are often unaware of what everyone else is writing in their personal statements, they do not realize what a great challenge it is to think of a metaphor that is not already overused, let alone to incorporate a metaphor successfully so that it does not come across as simply a crutch.
Why Almost Every Personal Statement Is Better Without a Metaphor, but Also How Metaphors Can Make a Personal Statement Amazing
In a previous post, in which I detailed the reasons why quotes should be avoided in a personal statement, I described that the key consideration for any personal statement is how “personal” it is and that the only way to do this is for the candidate to write about his or her own personal experience. While there is a full range of personal experiences, and some are more interesting to read than others, the more specific the personal statement is to the candidate’s own personal experience, no matter the experience, the more engaging it will be to read.
Let us look at it another way by considering three types of personal statements. The first is one that is not particularly “personal” but uses an interesting metaphor. The second is one that is particularly “personal” but does not use any metaphors. The third is one that is particularly “personal” and uses a particularly “personal” metaphor. As you might guess, the third type will certainly be the most outstanding, but the reason bears explanation.
No matter how interesting a metaphor is that is used in a personal statement, if the personal statement does not accomplish the fundamental goals of a personal statement, it will come across to the review committee or program director as being a failed opportunity by the candidate. With that in mind, a personal statement will automatically be more successful the more directly related it is to the candidate’s personal experience, without using any metaphors. Simply doing that for most candidates will be a significant accomplishment and result in an engaging personal statement. In rare cases (the rate is about 0.7% of the personal statements we have read), though, the candidate can enhance his or her personal statement with the successful use of a metaphor.
How to Decide Whether to Use a Metaphor
How then can a candidate know whether his or her use of a metaphor will be successful? First, he or she should consider the personal statement without the metaphor. Is the personal statement “personal”? If not, the metaphor should not be included, since it will certainly not improve the essay and in most cases, by contrast, will serve to make it worse.
The second question to ask, if the personal statement is “personal,” is whether the personal statement can stand on its own without the metaphor. Is the metaphor vital to the candidate’s story, such that it could not possibly be written without it? If the answer to this last question is yes, then it is likely the metaphor will be successful, and the next step is to decide which metaphor to use.
How to Choose the Right Metaphor
If you have followed the guidelines above and believe that using a metaphor is right for your personal statement, then you should already know beyond any doubt which metaphor you will use. Nevertheless, I will give you a couple of rules to follow. First, the metaphor should come from your unique experience or personality. You should decide which of your experiences or which aspect of your personality will serve best as a metaphor. Think of which one is most closely related to how you view your particular path.
Second, the metaphor should come from an experience or aspect of your personality that defines you particularly and therefore could not possibly be used by someone else. Let us take as an example the personal statement I described earlier that used the metaphor of the soccer experience. The reason that metaphor was unsuccessful was not that it was a soccer metaphor, but first that it failed to accomplish any of the key goals of a personal statement, and second that the aspects of playing soccer that were described were ones that could have been written by anyone else on the team. To have made that metaphor successful, beyond making the personal statement more “personal,” the candidate needed to choose an experience that was more “personal” and focus only on the aspects that made her experience unique.