Metaphorically Evolving

This post is part 3 of a series. Click for part 2 or part 1.

We are saturated by metaphor. From our language, to our thinking, to our core values, there is evidence of metaphors. In the last part of this series, we discussed how metaphor-based values are assigned priorities over one another. And lately, I’ve begun to wonder if we are in a priority reassigning revolution.

Do you know what a mid-life crisis is? I’m sure you do. But have you ever heard of a quarter-life crisis?

I graduated from college in 2013. I was 23 years old. That was when my own quarter-life crisis began. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had desires and I had an idea of what was expected of me. But of course, they clashed.

At the time, I thought my inaction was due to my fear of the unknown laced with some kind of commitment phobia.

Beginning a career was a terrifying prospect–doing the same thing day in and day out for the rest of my life? Can’t that be found in the dictionary under “bone-chilling?” This was problematic.

To bring this back to the theme, let’s talk about a common metaphor: Time is money. We use it when we talk about “wasting our time,” “budgeting our time,” or asking someone how they “spend their time.” As far as priorities go, Time is money is one of the top time metaphors.

Or is it?

Embedded in this metaphor is the concept Time is valuable. I’ve had several discussions in the past few years that make me wonder if the priority we give these metaphors isn’t changing and if what we value is evolving. It seems that the lesson we want to teach children, that money isn’t everything, may finally be starting to stick. Is it possible that we are beginning to think Time is valuable, leaving out the material aspects of the metaphor, namely money?

How would this affect us? We use our time to gain wealth. But what if money was no object? What if we valued something more than money? How would you spend your time?

Time is money is a metaphor deeply entrenched in our culture and, therefore, in our personal values. To reassign its priority in our own psyche might take a lot of effort and it seems reasonable, that for a period, the two metaphors would clash and erupt in a mushroom cloud of cognitive dissonance? Is the quarter-life crisis a symptom of this conflict?

Recent graduates are about the age of full physical maturation, the brain included. This is the age people begin to truly think for themselves (or at least have the option to). Is it possible this is when metaphor priorities, the metaphors which determine our value system, get reassigned according to personal belief and experience?

“An era can be said to end when its basic illusions have been exhausted.”–Arthur Miller

Maybe we have exhausted the illusions within aspects of our culture and all that is left to do is revise our value system, which requires a rearrangement of our metaphor hierarchy.

I’m not saying that the Time is money metaphor will be disappearing anytime soon–I don’t think it can. But the frequency of quarter-life crises seems to be increasing, indicating that we are at some kind of tipping point…and I’m curious to see how the subconscious of society is going to change, how it is going to evolve.

Breathing Room

Aaron had always been claustrophobic.

It had started when he was five. His older brothers would roll him up in a large blanket, one longer than he was tall. WIth his arms pinned to his sides, the pressure across his chest would increase with each revolution of the spot of light at the end of his cylindric prison. Completely cocooned in the blanket, his brothers would wrap him in a second blanket, in the opposite direction.

Four or five blankets and Aaron would be screaming–his brothers would leave him like that, to unroll himself one slow turn after the other. If Aaron didn’t roll far enough to unwrap from a blanket, he would roll himself back up when he changed direction.

Junior high wasn’t any better. Aaron learned what the inside of a locker felt like: dark, cramped, no air. But he also learned to close his eyes to the darkness, to feel secure in his tight quarters, to control his breathing.

These new skills were helpful when he made it to high school. During the daily drills, Aaron realized the room beneath his desk was spacious and bright and with free-flowing air: it was comfortable.

These were the thoughts Aaron found comforting as the air raid sirens sounded…unscheduled.

There was time enough for the students to get into the school’s basement. As his classmates crammed tightly into the dark, directed by the teachers with hysteric voices, the push of writhing bodies increased the pressure on Aaron’s body–he was reminded of the tight blanket cocoon he had grown up in.

Singed Nose Hairs

Grandpa was a heck of a guy. One of my earliest memories is being with him, sitting in his lap in the kitchen of the fire house. We did that a lot, visited him at work. I do remember getting quite red in the face though when he wouldn’t let me slide down the brass pole from the upstairs to the garage where the smells of oil and smoke intermingled. In his defense, he was right not to let me. I was only 6 or 7 then–falling would have been disastrous. But those were good times.

Grandpa was  the chief by that point and he had had quite the career with the fire department. He always said there was nothing better than pulling out of the garage, sitting shotgun in the gleaming red engine, their siren’s wail parting a sea of traffic. He used to tease me and say that once they got the call, they navigated to the fire by using their noses.

“C’mon grandpa, you do not sniff out the fire,” I used to argue.

“Of course we do.” This was when he would bounce me on his knee and put his baseball cap on my head. “We spend so much time smelling smoke that we actually train our noses to become more sensitive to it.”


“Of course,” he would say with a grin wide enough to reveal his crooked bottom teeth.

But that was more than fifteen years ago. It wasn’t long after those days he was forced to retire. His crew and three others had reported to an apartment fire, the worst seen in years. He sent up a few teams to search and evacuate the building. The fire grew so large and hot that they had no choice but to let the building burn. Grandpa was sure all his guys were out of the building at that point, but one pair wasn’t. The hoses and water were pulled out of the building and the pair lost their path of retreat. Luckily they found a safe way out the back of the building where they leapt to the adjacent roof.

There was an investigation. Grandpa was held responsible.

Given his age, the department asked grandpa to see a doctor. That was when I first learned about dementia. Visits with grandpa became fewer and shorter and we didn’t go to the firehouse anymore, but grandma’s house. Grandpa used to say it smelled funny at home and we would catch him picking his nose.

“Grandpa, don’t be digging around in your nose,” we’d yell.

“I can’t help it,” he’d yell back, arms in the air. “My nose hairs have grown so long without constantly being singed that they trap everything up there. I can’t breathe with a clogged filter of a nose!”

We’d laugh and laugh and roll on the ground, all of us grandkids.

But the laughter faded after a few years. Grandpa’s animated self relaxed and he didn’t even take the time to hug us anymore. He had forgotten most of our names, most of us grandkids.

Grandma used to tell my parents that he would still wake up at night sometimes, yelling about a fire. He would try to leave the house. And the amazing thing was he always had an address. I asked grandma to start keeping track. After a few months, she gave me a list and it was always a different address. I did some digging and found out that these were calls grandpa had responded to when he was still a probationary fire fighter.

Funny how his memory worked. All of my cousins would say grandpa was getting older–I thought he was getting younger. He was erasing all his years as an old man and working backwards, back toward his days fresh out of fire fighting school, back to when he first met grandma, back to when he could still sniff out the exact location of a fire.

And he did.

My grandpa didn’t die of his Alzheimer’s. He woke in the middle of the night screaming, “Fire!” as my grandma had been growing accustomed to. Only this time grandpa bolted down the stairs and out the door before grandma could stop him. The next thing grandma saw was the neighbor’s house ablaze. Grandpa bounded across the road, beneath the orange street lights, past the green oak leaves that transformed to brown the closer they got to the flames, and through the lawn littered with children’s toys.

Grandpa carried that entire family to safety that nigh. The whole house was ablaze by the time the fire department arrived. The responding engine’s chief said if it weren’t for my grandpa, that family wouldn’t have made it, that no one could survive that fire.

Sadly, the chief was still partly right–the smoke had been too much for grandpa’s lungs. He was taken to the hospital in bad shape. Grandma called in the whole family. Most of us made it to see him. Even with an oxygen mask on–a mask that couldn’t contain his smile–grandpa addressed us all by name, names he remembered, and gave us one last hug, finally able to breathe again, the cool oxygen running past his singed nose hairs.

Metaphorically Thinking

This post is part 2 of a series. Click for part 1.

In the first post of this series, we saw how metaphors not only show up in our everyday “literal” language, but how those metaphors help us make sense of the world. Furthermore, according to the Theory of Metaphorical Concepts, metaphors go as deep as structuring our value system.

Our cultural values are largely consistent with the metaphorical concepts we live by. Remember the metaphor Good is up, bad is down? Well here a few other metaphors we associate with the up orientation:

More is better originates from More is up (if good is up, then more must be good);

Bigger is better also originates from More is up; and

The future is better is consistent with The future is up.

Think about these metaphors and where we see them daily. Ever wanted more money? More time? More Facebook friends? Have you ever heard someone say they wanted a bigger TV? A bigger house? How about bigger…well, think plastic surgeon. And I know you’ve all heard political speeches that talk about how great the future is going to be. These values run deep in our cultural zeitgeist.

However, not everything is perfect. Sometimes values will conflict with each other, causing a conflict in our metaphorical construct of those values. In order to avoid conflict and misunderstanding, there is a hierarchy that gives specific metaphors priority over others.

The above examples are metaphors consistent with the More is up metaphor. Usually, we associate More is up and Good is up (as demonstrated). But can you think of anything going up as being a bad thing?

How about when we say the national debt is going up, or the crime rate is rising, or that tensions are high? We don’t perceive any of these notions as being particularly good. This is an indication that we give the More is up metaphor priority over the Good is up metaphor when they don’t reinforce each other.

Mainstream cultures share the same general values; but different subcultures assign different priorities to those values. Think hippies and politicians of the 1970s; they were part of the same mainstream culture, but were different subcultures that gave different values priority. And different people may even have unique priorities given their personal values.

So what metaphors do you see surfacing in your personal values?