When we bump up against the limits of language, we find ourselves turning to images and metaphors: This is like that. Here, Brittany Deininger explores the ways that metaphors—both individual and collective—shape how we view the world, speak of God, and think about that which seems beyond language.

One of the complexities of the human condition is communication: that reach for understanding and to be understood. The trouble is that there is a consistent space between our experience and language to express it. In that gap we reach for images to disclose our ideas and collect our experiences in concentrated form. Enter the metaphor. Though it’s a stalwart tool of the language arts, it is often an overlooked skillset of negotiating meaning in a variety of environments and relationships. Therapists, theologians, poets and artists all deal in metaphor. As a written image, metaphors are the lingua franca of the indescribable world. It’s like this. They give us insight not just into what we say, but how we perceive the world and how we think and behave in it.

Language Seeking Understanding
Linguists and philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson give a foundational definition in their book, Metaphors We Live By. “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” At a basic level, metaphors are devices for understanding through comparison. The invitation is to see A through the lens of B. This is particularly useful in experiences that leave us without adequate words. In the realms of inner experience, whether it be the pains of trauma or the divine presence in the midst, we are left to merely point in the approximate direction of the ineffable. Metaphors evoke our intricate web of imagery and memory that reverberate with the significance of how things connect. They allow us to pair the unknown with the known. This gives rise to the possibility of conveying experience, but also invites us into new experiences and new understanding.

As Aristotle argues in his Poetics, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor…it is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” The best metaphors don’t just categorize like with like. Rather, they create interest by holding seemingly dissimilar items in tension. They make the familiar deliciously unfamiliar to us and open us to see it afresh. Theologian Walter Brueggemann looks to biblical poets and prophets who wield metaphor in this way. They speak of God with renewed meaning that opens up rather than closing down the beloved with singular objective terms. The invitation of language is to live with a multiplicity of metaphors. These keep malleable the images we use to relate to and understand the ineffable mystery of the sacred.

Root Metaphors & Mental Models
Metaphors are far more than just ornate language. Lakoff and Johnson argue that since communication is based on a conceptual system, language and metaphor can tell us something about that hidden structure within. In other words, the root metaphors within our narratives reveal a great deal of our mental map of how the world hangs together and what it means. We shape the map, and the map constantly shapes the reality we perceive in return. While some metaphors may convey individual experience, root metaphors get at “our experiential gestalt” that makes our cultural context and values coherent to us. For example, Lakoff and Johnson highlight common Western root metaphors such as, “time is money” and “arguments are war.” We begin to see A (time) through the lens of B (economic resource). As you can imagine, this influences greatly not just how we talk about time and dialogue, but how we perceive and relate to it in our behaviors.

Lakoff and Johnson make the case that human thought is largely metaphorical, from the way we approach time to the way we shape rituals, experience aesthetics, perceive politics, and even pursue our own development. They contend that, “A large part of self-understanding is the search for appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives. Self-understanding requires unending negotiation and renegotiation of the meaning of the experience to yourself.” The metaphors we live by, often tacitly, are a very human way that we participate in our own world-making and soul-making. These metaphors are often part of the inheritance of language and culture. The more we come to know the metaphors in our narrative, the more we are equipped to recognize their influence and shape them.

Henry M. Seiden has been a poet as long as he’s been a psychoanalyst and he writes with the audience of practicing therapists and their clients in mind. His gem of a book, The Motive for Metaphor: Brief Essays on Poetry and Psychoanalysis is a meditation on the interpretive art shared by both poets and therapists. “My excitement with poetry,” he writes, “is that it makes beauty in a way not so different from the way psychoanalysis makes truth: that is, in discovery, evocation, elaboration, and transformation of meaning. Both arts can make what’s alive in us more so.” Meaning is made and transformed in the land of metaphor and narrative. The good news is that new metaphors make way for new understanding and new realities that we can live into. This is surely one of the reasons why I write. Perhaps it is why you might be considering being a therapist, a pastor, or a creator of culture. The telos within all this work is to find means of creating new worlds and ways of being.

In the meaning-making ahead of you, may you have therapeutic relationships, dialogues, and art in good measure. And as the resistance might say, metaphors be with you!

Resources Referenced for Further Reading: