How Metaphors Shape Your Health
The most enduring teacher in Western history was a committed storyteller. Jesus taught in parables. Stories such as the Prodigals Son, the Ten Lepers and the Wise Man (who built his house upon a rock) have found a permanent place in our cultural consciousness. Why are stories such effective teaching devices and what does this have to do with your health?
Our concept of existence is metaphorical in nature. We can only comprehend life, objects and ourselves by association, which is the broad meaning of metaphor - to understand one thing in terms of another. The earth is a tiny ball floating through space. Associating the earth with a floating ball helps us put things in a context that fosters understanding. Here are some other examples:
The brain is like a computer
Life is a test
Time is money
College is like a 24/7 party
Argument is war
The metaphor we choose or inherit, often deeply unconscious, holds tremendous power over how we feel, think, behave and interact with other people. Consider the metaphor "argument is war." With this paradigm in place, just showing up to a confrontation can be stressful. The language we use to describe arguments gives it away:
I've never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
In Western culture, we can actually win or lose arguments. We see the other as an opponent. We defend, resist, retreat, attack and even call for reinforcements. We gain ground, lose ground and assess casualties. So much of our understanding of arguing is structured by the concept of war! Couldn't this be why arguing is unpleasant for most of us?
Imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed as war, where no one wins or loses and there is no victory or defeat possible. Instead, what if an argument were seen as a dance? Rather than winning or losing, the goal would be to enjoy each other and the process, with a focus on balance. We could take turns leading, change up the pace, follow a formal pattern or dance more casually. If we were to argue like we dance rather than how we fight wars, the process and the end result would change so dramatically that it wouldn't be recognizable.
Such is the pervasive hold upon us that metaphors have and no area of life is immune. Try to explain or describe even the most concrete aspect of your health, such as your body, without slipping into a metaphorical description within a few sentences.
My body is a physical object, full of organs, nerves, muscles, bones and so forth; it is the house I live in while....
My body is full of cells that function to keep me alive. Each cell has a different function, like a large organization with....
My brain is comprised of nerves that run the entire body, much a like an orchestra conductor....
It is impossible not to use metaphors to understand life. This is how our brains are wired (another metaphor). So, what is your body: A prison or a playground? A temple for God's spirit or an animal? Or is your body like a clunky old refrigerator? How you see your body is the foundation of how you treat it (Hint: your actions give away the metaphor. If you claim that your body is a temple, but you treat it like a saloon, then the temple metaphor is just wishful thinking).
To take it a step further, how does your doctor see your body? What is his metaphor? Are you like an old car with worn out parts, ready for the scrap heap? Or, are you a source of renewable energy? Your health care provider's metaphors have a more profound influence on his decisions than his specific training in medicine, which has also been informed by metaphor.
Imagine the differences in decisions made by doctors who see patients as "meat machines" that break down and wear out vs. those who see patients as having miraculous potential for renewal, with every day being the sunrise of a new life. As with the arguing example, changing our metaphors for health and medicine would make the existing medical concepts, practices and technology nearly unrecognizable.
It is amazing that we haven't looked at this basic issue more comprehensively, given its pervasive influence on every aspect of life. Health metaphors have potential to radically reorganize every aspect of wellness including medicine, the health care system, prevention and daily decisions that determine our quality of life.
What would Jesus do with the health and health care issues of today? Would he tell us a story about a runaway train headed for a bridge under construction? Maybe, but when it comes to health and health care, I'd prefer a story about resurrection, rebirth and renewal! It's obvious we need a new story to define health. While it is forming, why not begin to reshape yours?
About the author: Mike Bundrant is a retired mental health counselor, NLP trainer and publisher of Healthy Times Newspaper.