Watch Your Metaphor

“Metaphors explicitly or implicitly identify one phenomenon with another phenomenon from which the first is literally distinct… In extreme circumstances, a good metaphor may be so compelling that it altogether subverts its referent's original meaning. No longer recognized as a metaphor, it redefines truth on its own limited terms.”
Professor Bernard Hibbitts

People come to think of their lives in terms of metaphors that so blend in with their worldview that they are essentially unaware of them. One person sees life as a war she can never win. Another sees life as a competition. For another, it is a test, and a perfect score is the only acceptable outcome. The metaphor, the imagery we use to give meaning to our experience, affects our experience, so we had better know with which metaphors we are filtering our perceptions of our lives.

The person who sees life as an unwinable war feels constantly defeated. If life is a competition, one must always be on the lookout and suspicious of the other guy. If life is a test of perfection, and perfection isn’t a realistic goal, then why bother? A poorly chosen metaphor can be the source of great unhappiness. It can be a burden and a prison. A well-chosen metaphor can free the mind and give positive meaning to experience.

Forrest Gump’s momma taught him “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna to get.” Others learned that “Life is a bowl of cherries, and all I get is the pits.” Which person do you suppose is going to have a happier outlook? Neither statement is more true than the other, but the influence of the thought on perception is significant. Why not dump your unhelpful metaphors?

Check yourself. How do you describe your life and the world to yourself? Some people may say of life:

Life is a game, and he who dies with the most toys wins.
Life is a trail of tears, a burden, a struggle, a battle, a war.
Life is unfair, too hard, pointless.
Life is a series of goals to be achieved.
Life is a testing ground.
Life is a dance, a journey, a quest, a dream, a nightmare, a drama, a comedy, a comedy of errors, a romance or a poem.

Some people may think of life as a precious gift, an opportunity, a school, a field of dreams, a field of unimaginable potential.

Realize that no metaphor will represent the fullness of life. Each is a failing attempt to capture an essence. Nevertheless, they filter our experience and we had better be careful which filter we choose.

Think about the terms you use to describe your life. What metaphors come most readily to mind? You might use the fill in the blank technique: Say, “Life is___________” or “Life is like _________” and fill in the blank.

Think about the implications of your belief. Will it give you the type of experiences you would prefer? Will it make you the kind of person you hope to be? Does it limit you? Does it set you up for suffering?

If your metaphor and related beliefs about life seem likely to impede you, consider discarding them.

You can try on a different metaphor for size. While you do so, remember that it is a tool for shaping experience. It is not objective truth any more than the finger pointing at the moon is the moon.

Other thoughts on life metaphors at

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© 2002 Tom Barrett