A Meditation on Metaphors

by Darren Ingram


If you go online and look up “bad metaphors and similes,” here are a few examples you’re likely to find:

• The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

• The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.

•  He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

What makes them so comically terrible? They each violate the blueprint of a good joke: recognizable set up, a moment of tension, then a hard right turn. The turn here is that instead of being poetic or descriptive, the comparison is blunt and obvious. A U-turn.

Being a former English teacher might make me biased, but it’s difficult for me to imagine understanding anything complex or abstract without having a coinciding metaphor to illustrate it. I would even go one step further and say that metaphors can become a part of our personal stories, and like personal stories, they become our “compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.” [1]

1. Solnit, Rebecca. The Faraway Nearby. Penguin Group US.

Is this overstating the importance of metaphor? Before you answer, consider a scene from Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview that was filmed in 1996, several years before Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When this particular interview occurred, Jobs had been fired from Apple and the company was only a few months away from bankruptcy. During the interview, he is unusually reflective, a bit sullen, and completely unaware that within a year’s time, he will return to Apple and make it one of the most successful companies in the world.

The interviewer asks Jobs about the team he put together to create the first Apple Macintosh computer and mentions there were reports of in-fighting and tension among the team. Jobs doesn’t get defensive or dispel the rumors; instead he explains how this tension led to the team’s success. To illustrate his point, Jobs incorporates a metaphor he gleaned from a childhood experience:

When I was a kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street and he was in his 80s. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he might of paid me to cut or mow his lawn or something. And one day, he said, “Come into my garage, I want to show you something,” and he pulled out this dusty, old rock tumbler, and it was a motor and a coffee can and a little ban between them. And he said, “Come with me,” and we went out to the back and we got some rocks. Some regular, ugly old rocks. And we put them into the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder. And he closed the can up and turned this motor on and he said come back tomorrow. And the can was making this racket as the stones were turning. And I came back the next day, and … opened the can, and we took out these amazingly, beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this [smacking his hands together] creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful, polished rocks. And that’s always in my mind a metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. Is that it’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people that, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together, they polish each other.

Jobs goes on to say that everyone on the original Macintosh team, in spite of the conflict, admitted that working at Apple was one of the most enriching and meaningful experiences of their lives. Near the end of the interview, Jobs employs another metaphor, this time for the computer itself:

I read an article when I was very young in Scientific American and it measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. So for bears and chimps and raccoons and birds and fish—how many kilocalories per kilometer did they spend to move—and humans were measured too, and the condor won. It was the most efficient, and mankind, the crown of creation, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But somebody there had the brilliance to test a human riding a bicycle. Blew away the condor. All the way off the charts. I remember that this really had an impact on me. I really remember this, that humans are tool builders and we build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities. And to me, we actually ran an ad like this very early on at Apple that the personal computer was the bicycle of the mind.

And finally, let’s look at a third metaphor that, for Jobs, illustrated Apple’s mission statement. It was posted on Apple’s website on the one-year anniversary of his death. During the tribute video, we hear a voiceover of Jobs: “There is an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love: ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’ ” 

You would be hard-pressed to find a literal connection between personal computing and kilocalories, rock grinders, or hockey, but in the metaphorical or symbolic understanding of computers, the connection becomes illuminating. It gives us insight into the idea ofgenius and one of the ways the term could be defined. Genius isn’t simply doing one thing or a series of things brilliantly; that’s what we call expertise, and we shouldn’t just assume they’re the same. “Genius” should be reserved for experts who go one step (or several steps) further by taking disparate ideas and/or skills and combine them to form entirely new ideas. Jobs not only saw the computer as an efficient tool, but, through his interest in calligraphy, also imagined combining it with a graphic user interface. Isn’t this what metaphors do as well? Gleaning understanding through the combining of unrelated ideas—a bicycle and the role of the personal computer. A rock polisher and team management. A hockey player’s instincts and the mission statement of an innovative tech company. When we find a metaphor that articulates what we are trying to say, it can act as, not just a guide, but a lifeline like the rope from Midwestern folklore that people would tie from the their house to the barn so they wouldn’t get lost in a blizzard.

Karen Armstrong’s book History of God offers a provocative insight into metaphors. Armstrong writes, “In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos.” Logos signified the rational, objective, and literal; mythos represented a metaphorical, non-direct, symbolic interpretation. Armstrong writes:

Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world… People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition… But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or “myth.” Myth or figurative language was “designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. [2]

2. Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. Random House, Inc.

You can learn a lot about yourself (including what subjects you should probably study in college) when determining which of the two, logos or mythos, you deem more important. If you’re interested in learning how to fly a plane, mythos won’t be of much use. You need logos to fully comprehend Bernoulli’s theorem regarding static and dynamic pressure. However, one could argue it was mythos that quickened the application of this theorem to flight in the first place. Wilbur Wright once said, “The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air.” Logos may have capacitated flight, but mythos inspired it.

Why refer to academics and scientists to understand figurative language? Emily Dickinson wrote in nothing but metaphors. She even has a poem that explains how metaphor works:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —


Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

What is a metaphor if not an attempt to tell the truth slant? And why do we need metaphors in the first place? Because logos or literallanguage is limited; it can be “too bright.” Is using a metaphor to explain metaphor allowed? Consider the pin-hole projector; a device used to assist children when learning about a solar eclipse without looking at the sun. By looking through the projector, the students see the reflection of something that would otherwise be blinding.

A few years ago, a friend of mine survived a massive heart attack, and afterwards, when he was physically recovered but still a bit shaken emotionally, we talked about the experience. We had no difficulty articulating the “how” or logos of the situation. He could explain exactly what occurred from a physiological standpoint that led to the heart attack and what exactly occurred when he had surgery and what procedures the doctors used to save him. We discussed his treatment and his diet and exercise regiment moving forward. This part of the conversation was easy. What was much more difficult was talking about the deeper meaning of the moment—the “why” of the occurrence. Logos was completely inept at answering such questions, and I didn’t really know what else to say. Then for whatever reason, a scene from Tender Mercies, a film we’ve talked about over the years, came to my mind. It was the scene near the end of the movie when Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is heartbroken and trying to make sense of his daughter’s recent death. He is digging in a small garden, trying to get his mind off of things while talking to his wife. Unsure of what to say or even feel, Mac quietly begins:

I was almost killed in a car accident once. I was drunk. I ran off the side of the road and I turned the car over four times. And they took me out of that car for dead, but I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answers to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived. I don’t know the answer to nothin’. Not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk and you pitied me and took me in and helped me to straighten out and marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war. My daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.

Mac’s wife doesn’t attempt to answer his questions, but she does listen. I didn’t have any answers either. In situations like this, I’ve heard people try to console someone by saying, “You’ll be in our thoughts and prayers” or “Things happen for a reason.” These sentiments, while sincere, often feel hollow or anemic. Moments like these require mythos, not logos. Understanding arrives “in [c]ircuit” or around the truth. Stories, liturgy, poems, metaphors, and in this case with my friend a scene from Tender Mercies, is how one can tell the truth but “tell it slant.” After I mentioned the scene with Mac and his wife in the vegetable garden, my friend quickly referred to the next scene in the film. Mac had just bought his stepson, Sonny, a football and they were going across the road to play catch. Sonny is happy and so is Mac as they throw the ball and enjoy each other’s company. Another metaphor at work—a ball being tossed back and forth through the air: connecting a father and son together, both literally and figuratively.


Originally published in This Land: Spring 2015.