Category Archives: metaphor
I recently read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. The woman behind The Order of the Good Death gives readers an interesting perspective on the life/death experience (if you don’t mind some occasional gory passages).
In her book Doughty references a 1961 paper in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology that outlines seven reasons why humans fear dying. The paper suggests that fear of death arises from concerns about
- Grief caused to relatives and friends
- Plans and projects that coming to an end
- The process of dying being painful
- The end of being able to enjoy life experiences
- No longer being able to care for dependants
- What will happen if there is life after death
- What will happen to the body after death
To that list I would add my own personal concern: my house needs a thorough cleaning and things are a little disorganized. I don’t want to leave a mess behind for others to clean up. I know I’m not alone in that: an acquaintance told me she never leaves her house without making sure the kitchen is clean and the beds are made, in case something happens to her when she’s out.
In Europe and North America we don’t like to talk about death. We are “death phobic,” as The Order of the Good Death describes it, which makes it all the more difficult for us when the inevitable happens. Regardless of which of those seven fears resonates most clearly with any one person—and I suspect it’s different for everyone—death comes to us all one way or another.
People in Latin America have a more open approach. Beginning on November 1, El día de los muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a two-day celebration that recognizes death as a natural and necessary process and part of the human experience. During El día de los muertos, the dead share in the celebrations, eating, drinking and being merry with their loved ones.
“. . . let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we shall die.” —Isaiah 22:13
Today I will eat, drink and be merry with some departed loved ones—after I clean the bathrooms.
“The one who rides the tiger can never get off.” —Chinese proverb
What does that ancient wisdom mean to you? After I stumbled upon the proverb recently I found different interpretations.
1.Once you decide to tackle a powerful challenge, you can never give up.
Very few people choose to “ride the tiger,” or take on powerful challenges. Why would they, when a comfy life without peril is an option? Most people choose paths with multiple outlets, and contingency plans. Safe, but not very interesting. Those who do step up to the fierce and noble animal must do so knowing that they are in for a wild ride that they must see through to the end.
2. If you connect yourself with something dangerous, it will attack you if you decide to disengage.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” Michael Corleone says in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. We need to choose our companions carefully, because the dangerous ones don’t want us to stop the wild ride. Wrong associations, drugs, bad business deals, and many other choices entrap us. They are a tiger that allows petting at first but once mounted shows its fangs.
3. Once you set yourself on the path of enlightenment, you will not be able to stop.
“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr wrote. He wasn’t referring to spiritual growth but it applies, because once a person opens up to enlightening ideas, they can never go back to the way life was before.
4. People often set off on paths that lead them to get trapped by their own wants, desires or prejudices.
Life can eat us alive. The title, position, status, or persona we have built may choke us, but we refuse to relinquish it.We may take on more and more until we are overloaded and incapacitated. We refuse to stop or escape, making us a prisoner of our own keeping.
5. Society is addicted to technologies and science.
We rely on our fume-spewing automobiles. Could we imagine life without our power-depended gadgets? Each scientific advancement brings the need for more science to solve a new problems born out of the new technology, in an endless quest for utopia.
That’s a wide variety of interpretations for sure, and all apt in their own way. What does riding the tiger mean to you?
“Zero gets to represent something and nothing” —from The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten
Zero means nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zippo.
Place it to the right of the number 1 though, and all of a sudden you have ten times that number. The zero magically creates something more. Keep adding zeroes and you can create all the way up to . . . infinity.
Nothingness used to create infinity. Huh. Sounds sort of God-like to me.
Something to ponder.
“Zero is like space. . . . A scientist looks close enough at an atom and what does he find? Space! . . . Space can be seen as the birthplace of all things.”
I recommend The Music Lesson. Reading that will make you think!
There’s a piece of paper on my desk. It measures 2 inches x 3 inches.
Is it valuable, do you think?
Let me tell you more. It has a bar code below the words “Cineplex Cinemas: Admit One. Present this ticket to a cashier to exchange for one admission ticket.”
What do you think now? Is it valuable?
But wait. There is more. “Expiration: April 30, 2016”
So, not so valuable after all.
For a moment, you and I could both believe that a mere piece of paper had power. I could take it in my hand and go places where others could not so easily go. Then, in a magical kind of way, the same piece of paper instantly became worthless recycling.
Nothing physical about the item changed, but the power it held dissipated into the ether. The science remained the same, but the story changed. Like magic.
When my kids were little, they became quite upset when they got “jinxed” by friends; they bought into the “jinx” story. I said to them, “You can only be jinxed if you choose to be jinxed.” They didn’t believe that though, because the stories of friends hold more power for children than a mother’s thoughts on the matter.
The power doesn’t exist in the object or the words, it comes from us. We choose to give it to them.
Everyone has objects to which they transfer their power: sports memorabilia, Beatles artifacts, paintings. The sticky point is: not everyone buys into the same stories. A World Series home run baseball is only valuable to people who don’t say, “Baseball? Who cares?” Beatles memorabilia only counts to those who don’t dismiss them as overrated. How about a painting like “Voice of Fire.” Is it worth 1.8 million dollars to you?
For Roman Catholics the consecrated hosts and wine of communion are much more than bread and wine. Scientific-minded sorts scoff at this. They don’t buy into the commonly accepted story. Those same scientists use money every day, so apparently they readily accept some forms of magic, but not others.
Money is big magic. If I want to go to see a movie—now that we’ve all agreed that my coupon piece of paper is not magical—I have an alternative. I can pull other magical pieces of paper out of my wallet, hand over an agreed number to the theatre and happily enjoy the film.
Of course, it depends which city I’m in at the time. If I were to pull out colourful Canadian pieces of paper at a movie theatre in an American city, they would be viewed with derision. Our paper is not so magical in the US.
The paper itself doesn’t change, but as soon as our car drives across an imaginary, magical line the story does. (Or in the case of our wonderful Canadian money, the polymer doesn’t change, but the story does. We really do have some of the finest money in the world.)
Commonly accepted stories help our society to function. If we all accept the story that red means stop and green means go at a traffic light, we prevent accidents. If we buy into the story of concert tickets, we avoid stampedes at Paul MCartney concert hall doors. (The Beatles are definitely NOT overrated.)
Beyond that, we have to recognize the stories for what they are and choose to delegate our power carefully. I’ll keep this Steve Rogers baseball on display because I love it, but you can bet that I won’t be bidding on “Voice of Fire” any time soon.
Two men stood on opposite sides of a field. An Overseer said, “Dig.”
The first man said “Okay! I can handle that. I’ve been preparing all my life to dig.” He selected his best shovel from five shovels leaning against a large storage shed, and he set to work. He had no trouble digging; his parents had paid for digging lessons when he was a child, and he had a college degree in shoveling. He was so good at digging that sometimes this man wished he had more shovels. The families of some of his friends had so many shovels they needed more than one storage shed. They had more than they could ever use, and this man knew his life would be better too, if he amassed a larger supply.
The second man across the field heard the “Dig” instruction and set to work. He had no shovel, so he dug using his bare hands. He had never had a shovel, so he wouldn’t have known what to do with one if he had it. He believed that shovels were something only other people had, and they were a dream he would never attain. He was a little afraid of shovels, truth be told. And the people who had shovels didn’t treat him nicely at all, so he didn’t want to become like them. Because he didn’t have a shovel, he had to dig longer and work harder than the other man, and he still didn’t get as much done. But he kept working. One day he fell ill, but he dug anyway. There are no such things a sick days for people with no shovels.
The first man didn’t pay much attention to what was happening on the far away side of the field, but one day he decided to take a well-deserved afternoon off and go for a walk. When he came to the side of the field where the second man was working through his lunch hour, he saw how little progress the man had made.
“Look at that,” he said. “He’s hardly done anything. He’s waiting for me to pick up the slack.”
He shook his head and walked away. “He’s just lazy and riding on my coattails.” He didn’t notice that the man had no tools to work with. It didn’t occur to him to share any of the shovels he wasn’t using.
The Overseer came back to check on progress. He visited the man digging with his bare hands, and he complimented him on his progress. “You have done well,” he said. The digger knew he had worked hard. He felt proud of the results of his hard work, even though he knew it wouldn’t look like much to others.
The Overseer went to visit the man with many shovels. That digger said, “Look at what I’ve done.” He waved an arm to show off the large area of ground he had worked. “I’ve done so much more than that guy over there.” He pointed to the small patch the other digger had worked on the opposite corner of the field.
“You have done well,” the Overseer said, “But do you think you might have a shovel to spare?”
Startled, the first digger replied, “Why, sure, I guess.” He’d never thought of that before. He looked down at the shovel in his hand. It had a sturdy handle, and it was just the right length. He really loved it. He didn’t want to give that one away, so he kept his favourite shovel. He gave the Overseer one he’d forgotten he even had out of the back of the shed.
The Overseer returned to the far side of the field and placed the shovel into the dirty and calloused hands of the second digger. The man held it out from his body, overwhelmed at first. He had never handled shovels, so it felt awkward. He didn’t think he deserved such a thing.
“Use it. It will help you,” the Overseer said.
Eventually the second digger gained confidence and became quite comfortable with the new tool. It worked so well for him, he even enjoyed some time off every once in a while.
- There will always be people with more or fewer tools.
- Don’t judge people who don’t have tools.
- Don’t be afraid of tools; master them and they will help.
- Everyone is worthy of tools.
- Consider the needs of others and get them some tools, if you can.
- Sometimes we don’t even realize that we have more tools than we really need.
- It’s okay to keep your favourite tool.
Indulge me in a little Life Boat fantasy.
Today—I’m not sure why—my mind travels to a mighty river. In the mind voyage I am a passenger in a large boat carried along on the current. I don’t choose the speed of the current. It is. But I can choose to paddle to the side and slow down if I want.
Jagged rocks jut out of the water on either side of me. I steer clear of them, but occasionally I snag on unseen portions of rock that hide below the surface. I must reach down and push off.
A seagull soars overhead and curves toward me in a graceful arc. I enjoy the beautiful freedom of its flight. The seagull swoops low and deposits a large splash of poop on the edge of my bow. I blink at the unexpected unpleasant intrusion into the beauty.
I realize I’m not alone in my boat. Passengers ride with me! I think Where did they come from? Why are they here? And I think Those are good questions to ponder.
I look around and notice how I feel when I recognize each face. I expect grand and sweeping emotions, like love or hate, but that would be too simple. People are complicated. My reactions arise from the amount and quality of light emanating from each person, because each person has a distinct collection of firefly flickers of light around them. Golden lights pop like fireworks around people who laugh a lot and live joyfully. Blue lights flutter around those who practice gratitude. Violet lights surround the ones who think deeply. Bright white lights shine around those who help others. One person flickers with brilliant—almost supernatural—lights of many colours. I’m surprised by his presence, and I am even more surprised by how many golden lights pop around him.
“Huh,” I say to him. “So, you are here after all.”
“Always,” he says. His white lights glow.
“You’re very joyful,” I say. “People always take you so seriously.”
Some people have only a few dim lights that flicker into life briefly and then die away. I find I don’t hate or resent these people. I’m pulling for them. I want them to learn. One of these dimmer characters shades her eyes from the bright—almost supernatural—presence.
“There’s a storm coming,” she says. “You’ll never make it.”
“I see the storm clouds,” I say. “But I’m strong.”
The woman starts to pace and I realize she doesn’t want to stay in my boat. I direct myself toward shore, and she leaps over the side before I can even maneuver the boat to solid ground. In her haste to flee anything positive, and with her zombie hunger for negativity, her feet land in sodden muck. She stands in the muck like the Grinch with his feet ice cold in the snow. Other people I hadn’t noticed before clamber out after her.
When I set off again, my Life Boat is lighter and moves quickly in the current.
The storm clouds arrive and rain pelts down, but the people in my Life Boat with me smile, paddle hard and bail water until we pass through the storm and greet a rainbow on the horizon.
After all that hard work, we choose to dawdle for a while. We relax against the sides of the boat and talk and sing. We’re loud, and we don’t care if we’re in tune. “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” by the Beatles. “Witch Doctor” by David Seville. Ooo, eee, ooo ah ah ting tang / Walla walla, bing bang / Ooo, eee, ooo ah ah ting tang /Walla walla, bing bang.
Other boats float around me. Some have crews that paddle intently and relentlessly. They leave me behind, but I notice that no one in those boats is singing. When I pass near another craft stuck on the rocks, my friends and I row over and nudge it back into movement.
The sun is setting in the distance, and my Life Boat moves toward the crimson magenta of the dying sun. I contemplate what the sun means, and I think about pre-destination and free will. My Life Boat involves a little of both.
While on my Life Boat, I can’t choose the speed of the current. I can’t choose where the rocks are, when the thunderstorms come, or when birds poop on me.
But I can choose where to steer my boat. I can choose how to interact with the people who appear in my boat. I can choose when to paddle quickly and when to dawdle. I can choose to sing. I can choose to help people.
In my Life Boat fantasy.