On War, Dancing and Light: Why Metaphors Matter

On War, Dancing and Light: Why Metaphors Matter

Image: Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1879, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

This week, we are pleased to feature Books@Work board member Karen Nestor. Karen is a longtime educator, having taught every single grade level from kindergarten to graduate school and has deep experience as a researcher, often employing a biographical approach.

Metaphors matter. They are not simply the stuff of Shakespearean drama or poetry or the SAT. We all use metaphors every day in an endless variety of ways. Metaphors are an essential element of how we think and engage with others at home, in our work and in all of our social interactions. But too often, we are unconscious of the metaphors we choose and the impact they may have on the quality of our lives.

As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson observe, one powerful example is the way that many people describe argument as war and embellish that metaphor in extended metaphors:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished her argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If we use that strategy, the competition will wipe us out.
She shot down all of my arguments.

We are undoubtedly using metaphors like this one all the time without recognizing the profound impact they have on the processes we use and the decisions we make. Arguments and wars are very different things, but when we describe them as the same thing, disagreements or differences of opinion may actually take on the characteristics of war. These authors go on to say, “Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way.”

Musicians and Dancers on Fresco, Tomb of Nebamun, c. 14th century BC, British Museum, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Musicians and Dancers on Fresco, Tomb of Nebamun, c. 14th century BC, British Museum, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Books@Work discussions provide insight into how the metaphors we use may change the very nature of workplace interactions. Exploring metaphor offers a place to consider whether the language we use inadvertently yields outcomes we do not welcome. For example, do we want to describe disagreement as war or as a creative dance that supports growth and innovation?

A recent Books@Work group, for example, explored the extended metaphor of light in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. When the horrific events of World War II described in the novel are darkest, the discussion turned to how light penetrates that darkness as participants connected the novel to their own experiences of darkness and light. One person described family experiences during wartime in Africa that no one else in the group would have known had happened. Another shared her mother’s stories of how neighbors brought light or darkness to each other in the time of deprivation in post war Ukraine.

In short, the group began to see that the author’s choice of metaphor – light – upturned the conventional view of the horrors of war and provided a different ground for viewing these historical events. A few said that they never wanted to read anything about the war because it was too sad, but that this metaphor had turned the reality of history into a different exploration of human goodness and evil.

When we engage in lively discussions of books that use metaphors to describe human experience, we begin to understand deeper meanings – and perhaps we begin to identify assumptions that color the way we speak and act in the world. Metaphors do matter and reading and discussing literature provides a new way for us to examine the words we use and to make more conscious choices about the metaphors we choose.

Further Reading:

Recognizing Others and Ourselves Through Literature

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

Iconic Books and Personal Experience: Classics at Work

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. She recently completed a doctorate in human and organizational learning, with a focus on how people repeatedly reshape their lives throughout the lifespan.  Karen is a member of the Board of That Can Be Me, Inc., the facilitator of Books@Work.