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Jun 24, 2013

The Transformative Power of Metaphor: Three Examples

Recently I was reminded of the transformative power of metaphor, and the excitement and comfort that we derive from having both words and visual images to describe our present circumstances. Sometimes life’s challenges take on an abstract and confusing form, and making sense of a presenting problem can be a challenging puzzle. Metaphors can help us with that process. They are teaching and communication tools that have been around for centuries and used by influential figures, they often give us pause for thought, help us to ponder ideas on a deeper level, and give us word pictures. Consider Aristotle’s words, “The soul never thinks without a picture.”  

Merriam-Webster defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

Similes (compare two distinct items), a type of metaphor, can also be helpful communication tools used in therapy for re-framing, and helping clients see circumstances from a new perspective. Similes have been used both in literature and in the media as communication devices. Consider the popular simile used in the movie Forest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” or the simile found in country music artist Garth Brooks song "The River," “You know a dream is like a river, ever changin’ as it flows and a dreamer’s just a vessel that must follows where it goes…”

Three metaphors resonated with me recently and they were powerful pictures of life experiences that made the crudeness of reality a bit easier to bear.  The first has become an image I have often seen in my mind’s eye since hearing it. Several years ago one of my clinical supervisors was discussing the changes he was experiencing as he transitioned into his 70’s and experienced a slowing in his pace of life. He used a metaphor that created a powerful visual image, that highlighted the bittersweet nature of aging. He stated that he was riding off into the sunset dropping duffle bags along the shore. He shared that these duffle bags represented the things he could no longer do anymore. As I heard him share these words, a part of me felt the grief associated with the changes in the nature of the professional relationship as he painted a picture of himself phasing out of his life’s work. Another part of me, was reminded that he is a wordsmith and was comforted by the poetic vivid description of his present circumstances and the changes that were and will continue to take place.

The second metaphor that resonated with me was used by a friend who lost his life partner about a year ago after being married for over 49 years.When discussing the grief and loss and the struggle to continue living a year after such a loss he shared, “Once one chapter ends you don’t want to stay there too long, you need to go on to the next chapter as long as there is life left to live.” As he shared this, the visual image of someone staring at a half blank page that marked the end of one chapter came to my mind. I was aware of the universal application of this metaphor, and I imagined that the person was starring longingly at the blank space feeling out of place, not quite ready to go onto a new chapter, and resisting the reality that the current chapter had indeed come to a close. However, the idea of staying in a chapter once it was over and the stagnation associated with avoiding the inevitable resonated with me. Also, the idea that there were more chapters to live seemed to bring hope and the thought that it is not a good idea to stay in a closed chapter too long seemed representative of permission to continue living since life is not over.

The third metaphor was in keeping with the second in some ways. I was talking with someone who was discussing the confusion, fears, and heaviness associated with an ambiguous transition, and the individual said “this chapter is ending, and going on to the next chapter is scary, but knowing that I will be taking some of the characters from this chapter with me and embedding them in the next chapter brings me comfort.” This idea that some characters will travel with us from one chapter to the next chapter in the story of life was an idea that I pondered that also brought me comfort in the midst of today’s ever-changing world.

In these scenarios people used metaphors to describe transitions. The first taught me about the loss associated with aging while the picture of the sunset reminded me that this is a natural and inevitable process, despite our efforts to resist it. The second taught me about the importance of remembering that even in the wake of tragic losses and unquantifiable pain, life is not over as long as we are living and the importance of giving ourselves permission to keep going. The third metaphor taught me about the comfort of the familiar and the power of embedding the “characters” of the stories of our lives throughout life’s many chapters. All these metaphors taught me how the use of metaphor can make the crudeness of reality easier to bear and how the journey of loss and transition can be transformed into a valiant opportunity for victory through the use of metaphor. 
Anita Knight is a counselor, counselor educator, and author. See for more information.

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