Andy Schmookler: Changing lives, changing metaphors

Andy Schmookler

Metaphors are an important part of how we communicate. With a metaphor, the speaker can use what is familiar to his/her listeners so that they will better understand what may be new to them.For example, when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman having taken, hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened,” he is trying to help people envision the nature of the ineffable (the kingdom of heaven) with something experienced in daily life.

So long as people know about making bread, using yeast, that metaphor will maintain its power.

Many of our sayings are like that. A stitch in time saves nine will convey its meaning so long as people use fabrics that tear, and are repaired by stitching. (That meaning being that it is best to fix things that have gone wrong before they get worse.)

But sometimes there are changes in our civilization that make things that once were well known no longer familiar.

How many people, for example, understand well the saying, Strike while the iron is hot!? The mere construction of the statement conveys some of the meaning: do it now! But that metaphor contains more meaning that will be lost to someone who visualizes the hot “iron” as an appliance for removing wrinkles from clothing.

But people who lived when blacksmithing was a regular part of community life understood that additional piece of meaning: the time to shape the iron is when it’s hot enough to be malleable. Later, when the iron cools, it will be rigid again and difficult to bend it to your will.

But few of us nowadays think in terms of blacksmithing and so, although the saying lives on, a vital part of its meaning – the part that focuses on the importance of seizing that opportune moment when action might really change things – dies with the change in the world.

So also with a phrase whose meaning is only in our times gradually being lost: “like a broken record.”

We who grew up in the age of the “black vinyl discs” (then known as “records”) have experienced how tiresome it is to hear the same thing over and over again, at a rate of 33 and 1/3 times a minute (as a scratch on the record’s surface keeps sending the needle back when it’s supposed to move forward into the next part of the music). And so when we hear someone just repeating himself, annoyingly, we say he sounds “like a broken record.”

But that technology is only rarely used, today, and I would wager that most of the people born in the age of the CD and the MP3, have no real ideas what it means to hear something “like a broken record.” (Not at all how a CD with a defect sounds.)

Phrases from times when more people were connected with agriculture have mixed fates with the more urbanized present. I think enough people understand enough about hay and its production to get a reasonably full picture of what is meant by “make hay while the sun shines.”

But I’m not sure how many people understand the idea of “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” Probably most people understand the general idea, because of the way it is always used to mean to be grateful for what has been given, and not inspect it critically. But I’m guessing that only a minority of people know enough about the buying of horses to know why a buyer would inspect the teeth of the horse.

A good metaphor is a way of distilling our experience into wisdom. But over the generations, as their way of life changes, people’s experiences also change. As previous kinds of experience disappear, the metaphors connected with those experiences can die out.

But even as change takes away, it giveth as well, as we generate new metaphors out experiences new in our times.

When someone tells us that something has gone “viral we understand the metaphor for rapid spreading from two different worlds (one of them being medicine), but especially that of the digital technologies, where people experience connection in a form never experienced by earlier generations.

And when it is said of someone that he has “not enough bars,” or at least so I’m told, it means that the guy “isn’t playing with a full deck,” and “the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor.” (Or maybe he just doesn’t have the “bandwidth.”)

We gain as well as lose.

Though our stock of metaphors changes, what doesn’t change is people’s penchant for creating metaphors.

The human mind works by recognizing patterns, and it seems we quite naturally use metaphors to identify a pattern from our experiences and to store it in our minds so it can be summoned up to bring a new situation into sharper relief.

These metaphors are not only how we communicate. They are how we think as well, and a way of encapsulating what we learn from our (individual and collective) experience.

Andy Schmookler – award-winning author and former candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District – is writing a series titled “A Better Human Story,” which can be found at http://abetterhumanstory.org.