One wintry afternoon last month, I was strolling through a forest with a philosopher friend when she stopped dead in her tracks, all of a sudden, staring up through the trees at a patch of blue sky. "This is exactly what my life feels like."
"What is?" I asked.
She held out her hands to mean the forest. "I spend my days on this tiny path, surrounded by overpowering things, hoping -- praying -- that if I keep walking, I'll find my way into some kind of clearing."
She sounded like Dante with a mid-life crisis. "In the middle of the road of my life/ I awoke in the dark wood/ where the true way was wholly lost," he wrote in The Divine Comedy. I had often felt this way myself, lost on the road of my own existence. What struck me hardest on this particular day, though -- with 2012 looming and the annual question of how to shape the new year in the air -- - is the great power our metaphors have over us, how we use them to symbolize, contain, and explain our existence. Our metaphors create us, I thought, as much as we make use of them.
With this in mind, I started talking to family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, about their chosen metaphors, most of which weren't chosen at all, but formed from habit, temperament and the unpredictable hand of fate. My metaphor, I realized quickly, is that life is a kind of cosmic, wonder-filled schoolhouse where learning and attention are the point, and looking for the truth. From this I had created a value system where terrible luck could be a lesson instead of a curse and where self-expansion, beating the odds, being a quick study, and changing my mind were the priorities. But we live with different metaphors. Here are some of the ones I came across:
1. Life is a battlefield. The man who told me about feeling like a soldier is a high achiever, a bad loser and had difficult childhood. He is also pessimistic and dreams of being a hero.
2. Life is a river we must cross. The young girl who told me this seems to be patient, cooperative and hopeful. She dreams of traveling.
3. Life is a gift for us to enjoy. The middle aged guy who reported this is humble, materialistic, ambitious but unfocused, self-centered, spiritual (on a good day) but not religious and well meaning. He comes from a poor childhood and dreams of satisfaction.
4. Life is a cross to bear. This family member is depressed, unhealthy, compassionate, lonely, defeatist and dreams of being forgiven.
5. Life is a mystery to solve. This teenage boy is intuitive, nature loving, esthetic and curious. He dreams of becoming an inventor.
6. Life is a terror to survive. The neighbor who said this to me is traumatized, brilliant, a world traveler, adversarial, apocalyptic, the survivor of an abused childhood who dreams of being safe.
7. Life is a legacy to forge. My colleague is persistent, optimistic, highly creative, history-loving, sober-minded, companionable, patient and dreams of reaching her potential. She reminds me of the young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
8. Life is an artwork to create. This student is high-minded, mystical, deeply inquisitive, pattern-seeking, chronically rootless, goal oriented and dreams of being free.
9. Life is a banquet for pigging out. This 20-something male acquaintance is high-living, nihilistic, comical, shallow in thought and deed, professionally lost, spiritually bankrupt and comes from a pampered childhood. He dreams of being able to love someone.
10. Life is house to be built. This older lady in my neighborhood is unpretentious, unimaginative, accepting, conventional, empathic, religious, civically active, faithful in love and friendship and appears to have self-esteem issues. She dreams, she says, of belonging.
11. Life is a problem to mull over. This teacher is intelligent, curious, optimistic, agnostic but open-minded, pro-active yet skeptical, cerebral and dauntless. She was taught to be a success as a girl and dreams of solo victory.
12. Life is a mountain that must be climbed. This colleague is grandiose, religious, pessimistic, visually gifted, athletic, long-suffering and self-doubting. She comes from a conventional background, had an isolated childhood, dreams of being left alone.
13. Life a journey to follow. This middle-aged seeker is non-committal, resists attachment, agnostic but cynical, hope-resistant, fearful, physically active and intellectually vague. He had a neglected childhood and dreams of coming home if he can find out where that is.
14. Life is a sin to redeem. This female colleague is judgmental, self-hating, conservative, narcissistic, politically rabid, angry and hard to count on. She calls herself "anhedonic" and dreams of being in heaven.
15. Life is a cause to serve. This 50-something male friend is generous, self-questioning, community-minded, unambitious, spiritually strong and had what he calls a "solid upbringing" with doting parents and dreams of being able to help.
We all use different metaphors, of course -- they may shift back and forth in a single day. But we also have our core images, the metaphors that really stick, sometimes long after their due date expires. It's fascinating to learn about yours. But then again, I see life as a classroom.
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