Category Archives: metaphor
Groundhog Day is one of my favourite movies. Clever writing and perfectly timed edits build a humorous, poignant, and challenging story that unrolls three of my favourite themes:
1. Long-lasting happiness doesn’t come through material things or self-indulgence; it comes from making a valuable contribution to society.
2. Life-long learning enriches the self and society.
3. People have to true to themselves, and they can’t control other people’s actions or emotions.
At the beginning of the movie, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a self-centered, cynical jerk. Through an unexplained circumstance he finds himself reliving February 2—Groundhog Day—over and over and over. Every day after his clock radio clicks over to 6:00 a.m. and he hears the same Sonny and Cher song, he meets the same people and re-lives the same events, trying to figure out what he has to do to escape the repetitive loop. Goofing off on the job doesn’t do it. Eating every creamy dessert in sight doesn’t help. Suicide attempts don’t work. When he falls in love with Rita (Andie MacDowell) he tries to make her fall in love with him. He pretends to be something he isn’t. He plays tricks, and he pushes too fast, too soon.
1. Eventually he begins to notice people he can help: women in a car with a flat tire on Main Street, a choking victim in the restaurant or a homeless man in the alley.
2. Eventually he decides to learn new things: he becomes an excellent piano player, a master ice sculptor and learns to speak French.
3. Eventually, he evolves into a compassionate, interested person who allows others to be who they are.
That is, of course, when the cycle breaks.
If I were to mention the three themes above in casual conversation, most people would nod in agreement. True, long-lasting happiness doesn’t come from a store. True, learning new things just makes life so darned interesting. True, we can’t control or other people’s actions or emotions.
But those commonly accepted rules aren’t so easy to live.
1. No matter how much we know that material things or self-indulgence won’t bring us long-term happiness, we still pine for a new car, Häagen-Dazs Dark Chocolate ice cream, a designer bag, a 52-inch flat screen, the latest electronic gadget . . .
2. We come up with excuses to avoid new challenges. We’re too tired, too old, too young, or we have no time, no money, no proper equipment . . .
3. We pretend to be something we’re not just to try to impress others. We try to shape other people according to our expectations. We push them to quit smoking, get fit, wear different clothes, change their hair, get higher grades, quit drinking . . .
If you never watched Groundhog Day, or if you dismissed it as a mindless lark, I invite you to visit it, or revisit it, over and over and over.
It seems the themes need repeating.
Placed along the edge of a raised shrubbery bed, the steps serve no purpose that we could discern. The shrubbery bed hugs the brick wall of a building, so even if a person were to climb the steps and machete through the greenery, a brick wall would all that would be gained for the trouble. The pathway beside the steps leads the other direction, so these steps don’t follow the natural conclusion of any journey.
What really struck me though, was the effort required to place these cement steps. Those things are heavy. Someone expended tremendous time and energy to hoist them into place.
The steps did come in handy for me. I climbed to the top of them and enjoyed a better view of the event, head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd.
Do your steps serve no purpose? Do you climb and climb and machete through, only to encounter brick walls? Are your steps leading you away from the natural conclusion of your journey? Are you expending tremendous time and energy putting things into place for no reason? Are other people the ones who take advantage of your hard work?
Questions prompted by steps to nowhere.
One of the places I work at is adjacent to a high school. On Monday morning, as I entered the building, I passed two teenage boys (16 or 17?) having a discussion about life:
TEEN ONE: Life sucks. Right now we can’t do anything we want because our parents are always on us. Then we’ll finish school and have no money, so we’ll have to work and won’t be able to do anything we want. Then we’ll get married and have kids and not be able to do what we want. And then when we have money and retire, we’ll be too old to do what we want.
TEEN TWO: Welcome to life.
Despite the grim prophecy about their life prospects, I smiled to myself. I couldn’t say that he had it entirely wrong; he skips across some truth there. But is it really all that bad, and is life even supposed to be an unrestrained gallop through grassy fields of wildflowers?
Then, yesterday as I exited the building at the end of the day, I passed two mothers:
MOTHER ONE: When they’re young, they’re so cute, and fun, and they love to be with you. They lull you into a false sense of security. And then BAM, they’re teenagers, and it gets ugly.
MOTHER TWO: Yep. I’m just gritting my teeth and counting the days until my son is human again.
I smiled again, because the juxtaposition struck me. One morning I walk in past two teenagers straining against their bridles, and one evening I walk out past two parents trying to hold the reins.
‘Twas ever thus. The push-me/pull-you of teens and parents. All we can do is choose to enjoy the ride.
“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” —Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
My husband and I had to roll with randomness twice recently.
The first time was two weekends ago when we planned a trip to London, ON to see my son at university. It was my birthday, so we were fulfilling my wish to get a birthday hug from both my children before the weekend was out. Our plan was to get up on Saturday morning, relax, do some reading, maybe some gardening and then meander down to stay with some friends in Kingston, ON on Saturday night. From there we would rise early on Sunday morning and drive to London to watch my son pitch from the bullpen in baseball game and have a quick visit.
Then . . . at 9:45 on Saturday morning my son sent a text: “I’m in Toronto with the team, and I just found out I’m starting the 2:00 game.” We live a 4-hour drive away from Toronto. I hadn’t showered or packed or prepared in any way, but we ran with it. We threw a few things in an overnight back, contacted our friends in Kingston to adjust the timing, and drove like stink to Toronto.
This unexpected series of events worked out better than our original plan. We got to watch our son be the starting pitcher in a game instead of coming in out of the bullpen, I got to see him on my actual birthday instead of the day after, and when we arrived at our friend’s house in Kingston later, we had nowhere to rush off to, so we enjoyed a leisurely visit and a walk in the conservation area behind their house.
The second gift of randomness arrived on our wedding anniversary. Our plan was to attend a presentation that a friend of ours was giving at the Chateau Laurier for the Canadian Public Relations Society and then go out to dinner. We started our anniversary evening at the Chateau Laurier and enjoyed the event and the opportunity to see our friend.
But when we walked him to the front door where he planned to catch a taxi to the airport, we discovered there was not a taxi in sight. We tried the hotel down the street, where a line-up of taxis always lingers. No luck. There is unrest in the taxi industry in Ottawa at the moment. Our friend was starting to panic about missing his flight, so we said, “We’ll drive you.”
After we dropped him off, my husband and I said, “What now?” We hadn’t anticipated being in the airport part of the city. We decided to head back to our neighbourhood and go to a restaurant that used to be one of our haunts when we were newly married and childless.
Again the surprising series of events worked out better than our original plan. We would never have thought of that restaurant otherwise, so we would have ended up somewhere less meaningful. Now that we are long-married and into empty nest childlessness, we felt like we had come full circle, and the restaurant felt exactly right.
“If you are not a washing machine or a cuckoo clock—in other words, if you are alive—something deep in your soul likes a certain measure of randomness and disorder.” —Nassim Nicholas Taleb
While all this was happening, I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. He suggests that systems—and people, marriages and families are systems—need some stress and agitation. Instead of resisting uncertainty, chaos, chance, volatility or disorder, or being extinguished by them like a candle, we should feed off them.
Not just survive, but thrive. Be the fire and wish for the wind. Sometimes it works out better than the original plan.
“. . . events that happen in the moment belong to the moment. They don’t belong to you. They have nothing to do with you. You must stop defining yourself in relationship to them, and just let them come and go.”
—Michael A. Singer in The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
There’s always something, isn’t there? Just when you get all your ducks in a row, a fox bounds into the pond and scatters them all hither and thither. As you chase around after flapping ducks, you say: “Really? Are you kidding me? Is this some kind of a test?”
Life as a test is a popular notion with some. Rick Warren states it as a fact in his book The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? “Life on earth is a Test,” he writes. “God continually tests people’s character, faith, obedience, love, integrity and loyalty . . . God constantly watches your response to people, problems, success, conflict, illness, disappointment, and even the weather!”
Ugh. I find the image of a being—completely separate from me and the world—up there poking and prodding me to see how I react abhorrent.
A test implies that people either pass of fail. But what constitutes a pass? Who gets hurt when someone fails? And how does the word “test” make you feel? Intimidated? Scared? Paralyzed? Threatened? Overwhelmed? Under-prepared? Notice that none of those words have a positive vibe.
When contemplating why events happen the way they do and what I’m supposed to do about them, I prefer an idea that the singer Johnny Reid refers to in “A Place Called Love.” When he wrote the song, his grandmother had just died and his child had just been born. He asked himself, “Where did my grandmother go? Where did my daughter come from?”
His answer: a place called love. Sounds like as good an answer as any, and it is certainly much more reassuring than “A Place Called the Examination Centre.”
Scientific laws of the universe dictate that events we consider unpleasant or catastrophic must happen: cancers, tsunamis, wild fires. We have to accept the science, but we can choose to write our own story.
When that crafty fox leaps into our perfectly arranged row of ducks, don’t ask, “How do I pass this test?” Ask, “Who returns to love because of this?” Or “How do I help myself and others return to love?”
I like the image of real ducks all in a yellow fluffy row, so that how I wrote about them here. Another theory suggests that “ducks in a row” came from bowling. Early bowling pins were nicknamed “ducks,” and organizing them in their proper places before the next ball was thrown meant they were all “in a row.”
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies . . . A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do . . . so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. . . . The lawn-cutter might just as well not been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
—From Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In this season of gardening, it is worthwhile to contemplate: What flowers am I growing?
What am I changing with my touch, so it transforms into something more beautiful and a little like me when I take my hands away?