06.22.2017 A Metaphor We Live By

A response to Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff.

“I’m thinking about leaving,” she almost whispered, biting her lip to hold back tears. The wind blew over the Bay and across my own face down which tears now streamed. We held each other, perched on the rocks of the shore. What had been an abstract idea had arrived as concrete as a raging thunderstorm in my mind. We spent the night talking about the meaning of life. We asked the other what we truly believed to be Universal Truths; what was SELF-EVIDENT? We laughed and we cried, and all the while I gained insight.

The next morning, we headed to the reading garden of a cozy bookstore. I spent hours finishing this book. I took out my journal and spent time reflecting on what I had learned about myself and the world from my recent observations. I wrote page after page of how it felt to think of going up to my beloved friend’s room and not seeing her; about how silent and gray my world would be without her. I scrawled poems helping me to conceptualize the place where my mind had now arrived.

Returning to school later on in the evening, I would spend hours working on computer code to make an mbed receiver flash lights in Morse code. I typed lab reports, I punched numbers into a calculator; I resumed the normality that populates a STEM major’s curricula. Yet, I could not help but feel I had wasted a weekend. In a word, I felt: unproductive. I had reached many conclusions about who I was and who I wanted to be. I had read a book and I had self-reflected through journaling. On top of this, I stood over 8 hours of watch. Nevertheless, time and labor are resources our society holds sacred and after all what had I really accomplished during this time?

Since industrialization and capitalism spread at the end of the 19th century, developing financial markets allowed for some to prosper while others, by virtue of natural selection, did not. Our culture forced us to place more value on things such as efficiency and productivity. There was now quantifiable evidence available to show us how much better we could be. That is to say, how much more we could do in such little time. Slowly, society changed to allow for separate and distinct entities whose greatest interest was in prospering and succeeding on an individual scale. We live today in a capitalistic culture where such concepts of time and money are lionized on pedestals above all else. It seems irrelevant to consider how often we compromise quality for the sake of quantity in completing our daily tasks.

Metaphors allow us to conceive of one thing in terms of another. Essentially, we use metaphors to think of abstract ideas in concrete terms. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Resonating most strongly with me was Lakoff and Johnson’s chapter on New Meaning.

The result is a large and coherent network of entailments, which may on the whole, either fit or not fit our experiences of love. When the network does fit, the experiences form a coherent whole as instances of the metaphor. What we experiences with such a metaphor is a kind of reverberation down through the network of entailments that awakens and connects our memories of our past love experiences and serves as a possible guide for future ones.

I liked this chapter because they speak of how we as humans are drawn to coherent structures. When things happen in our lives we love to remind ourselves to see the bigger picture. If we make a mistake, voices in our heads remind us of “the blessings of a B minus” or “everything happens for a reason”. It seems unfathomable to consider the alternative: such events are not linear at all. The idea a skinned knee does not serve any purpose larger than to prove the obvious fact you should not have tripped over the damned protruding threshold is not necessarily the only conclusion. Why? Human nature is drawn innately to this concept of linearity and as such, we believe the events that have happened in our lives are coherent because they define who we will become in the future. Sure, we account for confounding variables like where we grew up or how we were raised, but we add this to the pot like items on an ingredient list for hodgepodge chili. Now that is a simile, friends, nice try.

In this way, we believe that labor is money because it is efficient to believe this and because it allows us to be productive members of our dog-eat-dog culture. In fact, we even invent arbitrary goals in order to keep such ideas alive and motivating. Spending our accumulated wealth on things like a weekly ice cream cone or a yearly vacation gives us deadlines and objectives for which we can complete tasks and continue to work towards. Metaphors serve to allow us to make our lives more coherent but they also serve to highlight certain features of such abstract concepts while suppressing others. If I, as a person, want to spend time reflecting on things and gain insight into the eyes of other people, then I may be forced to recognize this is not necessarily a shared value and have to adjust my self-approximations as such. Most importantly, I must remember not to allow such metaphors to extend so far as how I value my own time, and accordingly, myself.

Labor is time and time may be money, but how one values labor and how one values money can change how they define this relationship. We may not be able to choose what society values, but we are certainly able to recognize the metaphors we live by and how they affect our perceptions of ourselves and of the world. The metaphor that labor is money hides how valuable time spent on things that are not necessarily laborious can be. Those three days were some of my most valued time at school, not because of all I accomplished, but because of what I did not. Not because of the precious time I spent completing many tasks, but because of the time I spent completing none at all and simply reflecting on my present and on my inevitable fate.

And I have no regrets.