The Power of Metaphors

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.

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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.

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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.[1] 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[2] 

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

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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.

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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.


Jonathan Collins

I resides in Portland, OR with his wife and two sons. I am a a co-founder of The Bible Project and Epipheo. My mission is to explore and explain.

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