Metaphors We Live By

I’m reading George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and it’s really rocking my world. To sum up their book in one (terribly inadequate) sentence:

Metaphors are built into our language so deeply that they unconsciously guide – and even restrict – our thinking.

We don’t just write metaphors. We don’t just talk in metaphors. We think in metaphors.

Metaphors aren’t just for literature and poetry. Cultural metaphors go so deep

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

that we don’t even realize they’re there. We think we’re thinking about things “literally,” but our conceptual metaphors are built into the language. And they shape our thoughts without us even knowing it.

If we think “Time is Money,” (from chapter two) then it’s something we can budget, save, and invest. It’s something we must not waste. We’ve all heard and said those things, right?

But think of a culture that isn’t ruled by our industrial rhythms. To hunter-gatherers, time is what? I can barely imagine how someone who has no watch, no calendar, and no real concept of money, might conceptualize time.

Even the earliest hunter-gatherers had to have some concept of time: seasons change; day fades into night; babies grow up, grow old, and die.

But they might think of time as a circle, spinning from day to night to day to night again. They might consider their lives a part of that cycle (either through reincarnation or in other ways). Lacking money, they’d certainly not talk about spending or saving time.

So, what does this have to do with “Wrestling with the Angel?”

If our very thoughts are guided by our culture-specific conceptual metaphors, then so were our ancestors’… specifically our spiritual ancestors.

What were the conceptual metaphors of the writers of the Bible? Can we even really know?

They didn’t live in a post-industrial world. They didn’t struggle with “diseases of affluence.” They knew nothing of equal rights or democracy. And we certainly don’t live in – or understand – their world.

Is it enough to translate the Bible, if we don’t translate the underlying metaphors? Can even the best scholar actually understand the thought processes of a pre-industrial first century believer?

Can we trust the Bible?

Well, yes, but …

Yes, but … we must go beneath the surface. We can’t just read a passage (in translation) and say “God said it, I believe it, and that finished it.”

Yes, but … we can’t allow ourselves to get lazy. In Jesus’s time, Jews and Christians alike studied the scriptures, repeated them, prayed them, and knew the interpretation debates. Today, we’re used to instant answers and polarized parties. We want an ideological clan with all the answers more than we want muddy, messy, living truth.

Yes, but … we must approach scripture humbly, realizing we may be wrong, no matter how long we’ve believed something.

Yes, but … we must approach other people humbly, realizing we may be wrong.

Yes, we can trust the Bible, but … we should know better than to blindly, assuredly, trust ourselves.

Race is a four-letter word (Part Two: A Tale of Two Wal-Marts)

The whole country’s been talking about race lately, and I think we all know why. I’m certainly not immune to this myself.

Like most Americans (at least those of us in the “flyover states”), I simultaneously loathe and frequent Wal-Mart. I hate the ugly, run-down stores. I hate that the employees are underpaid and undertrained … and, as such, are generally very little help. I hate that the corporate ethics are more Machiavelli than Jesus.

But we have just sacrificed a large portion of our income so that the wifie can stay home with our little one, and that means we have to tighten our belts. I’m now in the same boat as the majority of Mississippians: I lack the economic privilege to get snippy about shopping at Wal-Mart.

I live within easy driving distance from two Wal-Marts, which I’ll refer to as “Highway 98” and “Highway 49.” For some reason, I usually prefer to go to Highway 98. I never gave much thought to “why.”

I was getting my list together to go to Wal-Mart the other day, and my first instinct was to go to Highway 98, even though it was farther away. Even though it didn’t carry some of the rarer items I like (KerryGold free-range cheese and butter, for example) that Highway 49 does.

And it occurred to me that maybe this was a matter of race. You see, the Wal-Mart on Highway 98 is a little newer than the one on Highway 49, but it isn’t really cleaner. It doesn’t have better selection. It’s not closer. But it is “whiter.”

Don’t get me wrong: in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, you’re not going to find any all-white or all-black establishments, other than a few barber shops (except for churches. But that’s a rant for another post).

But different parts of town and different stores have different apparent ratios, different unspoken “feels.” I think that’s the case with almost every town in America.

And I have to wonder if that’s part of the equation.

So what do I do? I don’t know if this is ideal, but I decided I wouldn’t darken the door of the Highway 98 Wal-Mart unless I was already out that way (it’s near Sam’s and Target and such) or I was after something Highway 49 didn’t have in stock.

Highway 49 is my Wal-Mart. Whatever reason I had for wanting to go to Highway 98, I won’t be acting on it.

I’ll always be white, and I’ll always have a white American’s viewpoint. I’m not ashamed of my race or ethnicity, but I will not insulate myself from people of other races or ethnicities.

It’s a small thing, really, the choice of which store to shop at. But maybe it’s a start.

“Race” is a Four-Letter Word (Part One: Suspicious Behavior)

This past week has been a big one for talking about race in America. I think we all know why. I’m not here to talk about that tragedy, that verdict, or whether it was right or wrong.

I wasn’t on the jury. I haven’ t seen the evidence and heard the eyewitness testimony. I don’t know if the verdict was right or wrong. But that isn’t the point.

The point is, a lot of young black men have died in similar ways. A lot. This slideshow shows just a few.  And a lot of times, their killers have either gone free or gotten away with a slap on the wrist.

If the Trayvon Martin case was an aberration, it would just be sad. But it’s part of a pattern. An ugly, unjust, institutionalized pattern. And I think that people of good conscience need to speak out on this pattern.

When I was young, I always tried to deal respectfully with police officers. But mostly they left me alone. I wasn’t doing anything criminal, and they didn’t assume or suspect me of doing anything criminal.

For a long time I assumed that was the default.

It is, for white guys…

…but not so much for African-American, Middle-Eastern, and Latino men.

I’m no celebrity. I’m no TV star. Celebrities get treated better, right? They get away with things mere mortals wouldn’t?

Maybe not. Levar Burton is beloved celebrity, a role model to a generation of kids who grew up watching “Reading Rainbow” and “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” shows that glorified education, personal advancement, and (usually) nonviolence.  He is also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, a black man.

I don’t have a ritual for when I get pulled over by police (other than “try not to get pulled over by police.” Traffic tickets are expensive). I’d never think to pre-plan a set of actions to make sure the officer knew I was unarmed and not resisting. Why would that even occur to me?

Levar Burton does. 

Lest you think that Mr. Burton is alone, or paranoid, read this story, about a young honors student whose mother drilled the same practices into his head. He’s far more accomplished than I was at that age, but he has to prove himself every time.

I never would have believed or understood this just a few years ago, but I really think the most “suspicious behavior” a person can display being male and dark skinned.