On the Power of Problem of Metaphors

Following is an essay written August 17, 2006 during a very trying time in my life.  Reading it now, I can sense the frustration, fear, and anger.  

Suppose that you are a traveler embarking on a journey to the other side of a
mountain, and up ahead lies a trail. While it may seem that this trail is the only path to
your destination, your guide informs you that it is filled with precarious dangers, ones
that he is not willing to undertake. In his well-traveled experience he then says that not
only is this trail dangerous, it is unnecessary for it does not lead to your destination nor
is it the only trail available.

Suppose that you are not embarking on a journey to the other side of a mountain,
but rather you are on a precipice of the mountain already and cornered by a cougar. It
seems that your only mode of escape in this admittedly emotionally-charged situation, is
to leap to an overhanging vine and, hand-over-hand, make your way to safety.

Suppose that now you look closer at the snarling cougar and see that it is only a
fake mechanical prop. You are not actually in any danger where you are, because you
are not even being cornered. There is ample platform for you to roam. Not only is there
no danger of being mauled or falling, you are not even outdoors, but on a closed
soundstage of a movie set. There are actors, producers, gaffers, key grips, and studio
executives staring nonchalantly at you. You are not a traveler at all, but a stuntman who
is securely harnessed by a cable which is intended to be removed digitally during post-

* * *
When we use metaphorical language, what we are doing is attempting to describe
a perspective—not necessarily to capture all the details and nuances of a concept or a
reality. It is mainly an invitation to the other to catch a glimpse of what we are trying to
communicate in previously more detailed, technical, or rational language. These
metaphors are attempts to use language in such a way as to give the other a hint or a
handle onto which to hold. They are not meant to be the final persuasive argument, for
metaphors are inherently incomplete descriptions of reality in an isomorphic sense,
otherwise reality would suffice for itself. To put it succinctly, metaphors give limited but
powerful insight into our feelings themselves or our feelings about logic.

Because metaphors are used to describe emotional perspective in a meaningful yet
incomplete manner, the denial or amendment of those metaphors may be
counterproductive if enacted with the sole intention to logically persuade and override.
However, if one changes an image to describe one’s perspective, not to be a final
argument, this may simply be motivated by the aspiration to use common terms. This
being acknowledged by both sides, they may forge ahead with their own respective and
respected imaginations.

When the descriptive is forced into the prescriptive, there are problems that may
arise. One problem is that this action opens the possibility of rampant logical fallacies to
emerge such as ‘straw man,’ ‘strong arm/intimidation,’ ‘inconsistent definition,’
'unnecessary either/or,’ ‘uncommitted hypothetical,’ or ‘false dichotomy,’ not excluding
others as well. Since the images used in metaphors are inherently separated from the
force of the objects which they may symbolize, these images may be freely manipulated,
transposed, thrown out, vilified, glorified, or recontextualized. The effect of such
changes in a descriptive metaphor is merely that of blinking while watching a moving
image or of looking out another window of a home. The implications, however, of this
free, undetected change are naturally, and possibly intentionally, more impacting.

Another problem that may arise is that a change in a given metaphor, if intended
to logically persuade, may communicate a devaluing of or an outright disregard for the
other’s feelings. This would be akin to saying to one who shattered an ankle, “Your pain
is illegitimate and unreal. Stop feeling pain.” (Notice that this simile is used to describe
a limited perspective, rather than to sum up all the details of the incident or the
expectation that endorphins and shock may have shielded the injured from the totality of
their pain, for example.) While it is highly likely that some pain is unnecessary and self-
inflicted, it is nonetheless present. The way to bring the injured out of pain is not by
denial, thus reducing their perceived worth, but by gentle encouragement, empathy,
loving truth, and courageous understanding.

This is reminiscent of a rule in theatrical improvisation, that is never deny a given.
Suppose that the stage is blank containing only two people. One impatiently asks the
other, “So how long have you been waiting for the 412 express?” Then the other starts
yelling in an old-time, colonial accent various rantings about the Redcoats coming. Both
actors are clearly attempting to force the other into conflicting realities, and this results in
poor, non-unified communication to an audience who is desperately trying to follow what
is happening. This is a common mistake made by inexperienced actors, for in the brief
moments before a scene starts, they are creating safety for themselves by formulating
their own reality in such a strong-willed fashion that they are not listening to the other for
fear of not being quick, creative, or spontaneous enough. The result of this break down is
not that one person’s reality wins over another, but rather that the overall goal of
effectively communicating to an audience has been compromised, causing both actors’
offered realities to be lost.

Returning to the opening scenes of mountain treachery described above, each one
in itself represents a clear but limited perspective. Even if taken on their own merits
individually, many questions may still arise. Is the guide trustworthy? That is, not only
does he have your best in mind, but has he acquired exhaustive knowledge of this and
every other trail on this particular mountain? Do you and the guide have the same
threshold of the nature and value of danger? Does he understand the destination that you
are seeking? When confronted by the cougar, if a spare moment is taken instead of
brashly leaping for the overhanging vine, do you see that there is a gun at your feet?
Would that vine even hold your weight? Are your hands strong enough to make it to
safety? Is this merely a screen test? Is the film company reputable? Will the movie
bomb at the box office, thus wasting your time and potentially compromising your career
as a credible stuntman? In asking these questions, one would reveal a misunderstanding
of the content and function of metaphor. The power of these metaphors rests not in what
they don’t say, which may be manipulated, but in what they do say. They are not meant
to be completely exhaustive, air-tight prescriptions of reality, but rather they make a
limited point in a familiar and evocative language.

The same goes for parables. It is unnecessary to know the currency exchange
rates of Biblical times to understand that the widow’s mite was a proportionally
extravagant offering given in an attitude of devotion and faith (Luke 21:1-4). What, then,
is the purpose of metaphorical language or parables? In the words of Jesus in Matthew
13:11 and 17, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,
but to them it has not been given.” “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous
people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did
not hear it.”

Would that we all humbly and sincerely ask God to open our eyes and ears that
we may truly perceive and understand each other and His very present but still, small

Leave a comment

    Add comment