Narrative ‘Tradecraft’ #4 – Metaphor

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March 11, 2016

By Reggie Marra, MA, ACC

We’re taking a look at the power of comparison, consciously intended or not, in our language. While “metaphor” grabs the headline above because it is for many the glamorous go-to word, more alluring than its partner, simile, this post’s title is more accurately, “Comparison” or “Comparative Representation” – the intentional or unintentional use of one thing or type of thing to represent another.
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Early on, we’re taught that simile compares one thing to another using the words, like or as – “he stood, like a mountain, unmoved,” while metaphor gets the job done without any help – “a mountain, he stood unmoved.” Rarely are we taught, or at least made aware of, the prevalence of metaphor in our language and the impact it has on our meaning and on us, whether or not we notice.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson tell us that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (p. 3). Whether we look to the concept of argument as war (Your claims are indefensible) or time as money (That flat tire cost me an hour), or the directional orientation of our everyday lives (I’m feeling up or down; I wake up, and fall asleep; I’m in peak health, but come down with a cold) (pp. 4-15), the underlying concepts are powerfully present.

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So, what? So, as we set about writing our healing narratives, our framing metaphors – our underlying beliefs about our healing, health, illness, injury, loss, life and death – whether we’ve intentionally chosen them or they’ve chosen us, impact what we understand, how we understand it and whether or not we believe we can negotiate the healing we seek.

Life that’s a labyrinth is quite a bit different from life that’s a maze. Engaging an illness as a battle carries different weight than engaging it as a war, and each of these stands in stark contrast to illness as an unexpected adventure. Embarking on a journey requires a different mindset and skillset than following a path. Facing a trial is quite a bit different than carrying a burden. The subtle and not-so-subtle biases that inform us make a difference, even when we know we’re exaggerating: “This head cold has me at death’s door,” tells our body (and others) a different message than “This head cold’s slowing me down a bit.”

You get the idea.

Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors vividly expose the underlying, debilitating social and personal power that metaphor carries, especially, but not only, when it’s not noticed, or noticed and taken as literal truth. Powerful indeed.

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As we write our healing narratives, concern with metaphor need not impact our initial drafts, our free writes – our attempts to get our stories onto the page or screen. Worst thing we can do is censor ourselves early on. As we revisit and re-vision, however, as we see and hear our words again and notice where they want to go, we do get to choose our metaphors, however overtly or covertly they appear in our writing.
Perhaps, beyond getting to choose our metaphors, we have an obligation to ourselves to choose them wisely and compassionately in service of our healing.


Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003, 1980.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and it’s Metaphors. Single volume. New York: Anchor-
Doubleday, 1990.

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