Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Metaphors - by Owen

Here's my thought of the day:

1. Each of us relies on our senses to navigate the world we live in. We walk around by feeling the ground under our feet, seeing the curb in the sidewalk and adjusting our step so we don't trip, unconsciously responding to tiny bones in our ears to tell us if we are losing our balance or not...

To drink a cup of coffee: we see the coffee cup in front of us, unconsciously estimate how much it weighs, pick it up, and bring it to our mouths, hopefully avoid burning ourselves by estimating the temperature before we drink it, and control how fast we pour and swallow so that we don't spill it all over our nice new dress shirts...

We rely on the taste of foods to tell us whether or not they are safe or nutritious.

Over and over throughout the day, we touch, taste, feel, smell, hear the things around us.

2. With all this stimulation, we build a "picture" of the world around us - its people, places, objects etc. In our early years, we 'learn' that buses are loud and big and dangerous, that cats purr, that dogs are sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, that children are helpless and parents defend them (usually) and scores of other kinds of basic things. We learn how heavy things are, how sharp they are, what they taste like, and so on. We learn how different kinds of living things interact with one another.

All of this learning is based on identifying objects (including living objects), learning things about the objects, and seeing how they interact with other objects.

This kind of learning we share with all the animate creatures of the world. Some are better than others (dolphins are smarter than beetles), but we all share it this basic way of being.

Something we humans do on top of this is that we use language and abstract thinking to understand things we CAN'T actually sense. When we do this, we do it by imagining it in terms of things we can see, touch, taste, smell, hear... We do it based on the accumulated knowledge we have about the world around us, and the people, creatures, and objects that fill it.

Example: when we talk about bacteria in the human body, we say that some of them are "invaders" that attack the body, and that our immune system "defends" us... Nowadays, we also talk about "good" bacteria that "help" us, and others that are harmless... All these ideas are based on interpersonal metaphors - metaphors about relationships between human beings. And they are compelling ones for people who grow up watching movies about wars and invasions and soldiers and police etc, so they "work" to some extent. That is, they help people to understand some of the relationship dynamics of invisible creatures in and on our bodies and in the environment around us.

On the other hand, these metaphors also lead people astray, and cause them to do absurd things that are harmful to themselves and the people around them. For example, people unnecessarily use anti-bacterial soaps (believing that it is better to kill bacteria then risk invasion) that wash down the drains and into drinking water supplies, agricultural food chains, rivers and streams (into fish) and ultimately the ocean... ultimately coming back to haunt us in the form of increased antibiotic 'resistance' (another war metaphor) and toxic reactions to the antibiotics themselves!

The point of all this is that most of us are unaware that we are using metaphors to understand many of the things in our lives - instead we function as though our metaphors are reality, and act accordingly. We try to do what we would do if we actually had invaders in our homes - fight them off, kill them, call in the soldiers etc. etc.

Once we realize that ALL understanding of invisible things is based on metaphors, it can open us up to being cautious about using metaphors too loosely. It can allow us to consider alternative metaphors - even when they are less emotionally/viscerally compelling - if they actually match reality better.

A metaphor about metaphors:
When you are aware that someone is spreading gossip, rather than objectively describing reality, then you can consider that there may be other sides to the story. This consideration might help you to interact better with people implicated by the gossip - instead of making enemies unnecessarily...


Post a Comment

<< Home