dreams and visions

All Our Metaphors Have Failed Us

In a time not long ago, in a land both strange and familiar, two brothers walked a path together. It was a path they used often, for it led to a stream where fish swam, and one of the brothers had devised an ingenious way of catching the fish, which were good for eating. The genious brother was called Hmmm, because he made this sound with his mouth every time he came up with an ingenious idea. The other brother was called Psh Psh because he was a fast runner, and this was the sound his feet made as he ran.   Hmmm carried a large chunk of curved tree bark, which he used to carry the fish they caught back to the family. Psh Psh carried a long stick that was pointed at one end––his brother’s invention. With the long and pointed stick, Psh Psh was capable of spearing fish from a good distance. Hmmm and Psh Psh were a productive duo––Hmmm with the ideas, Psh Psh with the speed and talent for throwing long and pointy things. 

 It happened on a particular day, that as the brothers were on their way to the stream where they were to catch fish, that an object moved from the brush onto the path in front of them. To Psh Psh, the object resembled one of his brother’s useful inventions, something he created by weaving thin strips of tree wood together. Today, you and I would call this invention “rope”, but this story takes place before such descriptions existed. This rope was different than Psh Psh had seen before. This rope moved on its own. Fascinated, he reached for the rope, and before Hmmm (who was suspicious of the moving rope) could stop him, the thing grew teeth and bit Psh Psh on the arm, leaving two holes in his flesh. Psh Psh angrily struck the biting rope with the pointed stick he carried, killing it. He reached his hands to the sky in triumph and opened his mouth to howl victory, but rather than a howl, white foam came out. Psh Psh fell down and died. 

Hmmm gazed upon his dead brother and the creature that had killed him. Pointing at the deadly rope, he made a sound that would translate in our tongue to the word DANGER! With this, Hmmm had conjured the greatest invention of his life: metaphor. 

Out of the tragedy of his brother’s death, Hmmm became the first human in history to describe reality with a sound. He was the first to name, and he taught this manner of naming to his kin, and from that time forward, his people became masters at naming things. In the years that followed, Hmmm’s people thrived far beyond any other group of the day, for with the ability to name, came the ability to identify that which brings life from that which is deadly. And with the ability to identify with sound, came the ability to pass on ideas. 

If you’ve ever used metaphor, (and if you use any sort of language, spoken or unspoken, you must use metaphor) you owe thanks to Hmmm and Psh Psh. With metaphor––and the ability it grants to name and identify––humans have become the dominant species on Earth. So good have we become at describing reality, that our metaphors have come to define our reality. 

This seems a good thing. We love to name things, and we are very good at it. Naming, defining, categorizing––this is in our blood, passed on from our earliest ancestors. With our ability to name, we do the impossible. We describe the indescribable. We “know” the unknowable. 

You are aware, of course, not all metaphors are created equal. Some lack wholeness and some are flat out false. Some, however, carry the virtue of absolute truth. Some metaphors are perfect, containing the glorious light of the divine. 

I am not so arrogant as to say that my own metaphors are perfect, but they are pretty damn good. With metaphors as good as mine, I am able to inspire others to adopt them as their own and to join with me. When others join with me, I call our group “Us”. Everybody else––those who prefer less perfect metaphors––I call that group “Them”. Metaphors are powerful, and if you get them wrong, they can be dangerous. There’s no telling what Them, armed with their lesser metaphors, may do that harms Us. In my mind, I keep a clear and concise barrier between Us and Them. The barrier keeps me safe. Just as Hmmm cried “DANGER!” at the sight of the snake that killed his brother, I say “DANGER!” whenever I feel threatened by Them. Only I don’t shout the word; I whisper it to others of Us. And if I feel very threatened, I share something on Facebook––usually an article written by someone else who uses really good metaphors––and this never fails to rally much support from other Us members and demonstrates all the more to Them why they are dumb and misguided. 

Lately, Us have become terribly outnumbered by an ever-growing number of Them. Them are more than a single group; they are thousands––much like primitive peoples of a common area that identify as individual tribes, but are really all the same in the eyes of the civilized. In the end, if they don’t see things as Us do, they are all just Them. 

Days ago, there was an unusual happening in the sky. For several moments, the moon blocked the sun. In ancient days, when people were equipped with nothing but primitive metaphors, they may have interpreted this happening as a sign that the sun god was under some sort of attack, or perhaps he was angry, and therefore turning away his face. They may even have assumed some act of propitiation was demanded, so they might have killed a bird or a goat or one of their own children, and when, after two heart stopping minutes, the sun returned, they would have assumed it was the spilling of sacrificial blood that had staved the sun god’s anger. Now, most of us know those ideas are silly. 

On the day the moon blocked the sun, I was with others of Us. Across the field in which we stood, there was a group of Them. I did not need to exchange words with any of Them to know they were not of Us; I could tell by the way they dressed and wore their hair, the music they listened to, their way of interacting with one another––so rife with false metaphor––these were the sort of pitiful, misguided folks that the articles I share on Facebook are written about. Much as I wish Them capable of grasping my superior way of describing reality, I fear they will never get it. They knew to stay on that side of the field, and we had no interest in crossing to their side. We would each enjoy the happening in our own way, Us in the right way, Them in their wrong way.  

One of Them in particular caught my eye, or rather, he caught my ear––with the way he prattled on and on to others of Them, about how much he hates certain members of the government and the media and consumerism and GMOs in the food supply, and how he carries a particular disdain for suburbia and Kirk Cameron.  

As a suburbanite and a fan of Kirk Cameron from his early work on Growing Pains, I found this man’s diatribe obnoxious and offensive. If ever I am to bump into him on Facebook, I will most certainly give him a piece of my mind. But on this day, I simply did my best to ignore him, and to pity him for his ignorance. 

As the sky darkened, the man went quiet. We all went quiet. Donning our sun-watching eyeware, we looked up and watched as the sun disappeared in chunks, as though a galactic monster with the munchies were devouring it one bite at a time, like a massive cosmic cookie, shrinking, shrinking away. I peeked at our group there in the field, everyone gazing skyward with those strange mirrored eyes, then I looked over at Them, and I was struck with the surprising realization that, with glasses on and faces turned upward, Them looked a lot like Us.  

It happened all at once, like a holy hand reached through the void, snuffing out the world’s only light and peeling back the atmospheric veil. 

Stars. Clear and sudden. Words were uttered by Us and Them––obvious, silly words, like “Ooooohhh! Look! Stars!” Meaningless words that only make sense in moments such as this, when the manner of our words doesn’t matter, only the feeling within us, compelling us to make sound, to exclaim.

Glasses off, views unencumbered, the stars multiplied, spreading from space to Earth, kissing tear-slicked cheeks. In all my years, with all the knowledge I’ve gathered that has shaped and grown me, I never felt so small. All of Us were so small. Them as well. Across this field and across many others just like it, across cities and suburbs and farms and highways and dusty backroads, millions of human beings became small. Only a handful understood we were small all along. 

It was when I glimpsed the man––the annoying one who hates Kirk Cameron––that the realization struck me. His gaze was fixed upon the eclipse; his cheeks, wet with tears, glistened like the million stars before us. We can explain so much with our words. We can explain the pathway of the Earth around the sun and the moon around the Earth and how every so often, the paths overlap and create spectacular images in the sky. We can explain all these things and more, but we can’t truly explain why such a thing causes us to cry. Sometimes, it takes the experience of something beautiful and exceedingly rare, for us to understand that our names and categories, our meanings and explanations––even the “best” of them––are woefully incomplete. In the end, we will find all our metaphors have failed us. 


AP Photo

2 replies »

  1. Interesting read. The biologist Yuvall ( I think that’s his name) also says that the metaphor is the development that spurred human development back in the good old days. The Sumerian kings demanded accurate predictions of the eclipses – so that they could resign and appoint a new king – because the eclipse was a bad portent. Come the new moon, tho, the substitute King was killed and proper kingship restored.

  2. Thanks for the comment Bumba. I do believe that metaphor (or more broadly – storytelling) is what has led to humanity’s rise. Ironically, it may also lead to our demise. Metaphor is profoundly useful, however somewhere along the way, a huge portion of the population has confused metaphor with greater reality. When that happens, we get shit like the Crusades.
    I tried to capture a bit of that confusion in this piece.

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