Everybody Wants to Be Happy

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 18
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

Someone Is Seething

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It’s a good thing to let people know how much you like them. It’s strange but true that people usually forget to do that, but then when you see how the littlest compliment can make a person sit up lively you say to yourself, oh yeah. —Elizabeth Berg, Joy School



I asserted in Chapter 1 of this course that “reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are ‘more real’ and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs….” Our choices and actions are motivated by concepts, or abstractions — wanting, needing, wondering, questioning, grieving, imagining — not by objects.

Chapter 2 began with the observation that “everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is ‘a parade of odd and wonderful events.'”

If objects brought happiness, then the person with the most objects — the greatest number of possessions — would be the happiest. This is manifestly not the case.

  • Research has shown that the poorest people and the richest people are about equal on the happiness scale, which is to say that they are equally unhappy. It’s the folks in the middle – those who have enough, who enjoy what they have, and who enjoy sharing it – who are the happiest.
  • “Close relationships, more than personal satisfaction or one’s view of the world as a whole, are the most meaningful factors in happiness. If you feel close to other people, you are four times as likely to feel good about yourself than if you do not feel close to anyone. -Magen, Birenbaum, and Pery 1996” (1)
19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

A family scrimps and saves to buy a house. They find the cottage of their dreams, they agonize over whether to paint the parlor Eggshell or Winter White, they spend hours examining carpet samples that (to the untrained eye) look exactly alike. They put up tasteful wallpaper. They purchase “window treatments.” They reupholster Grandmother’s priceless Eastlake-style furniture. They decorate little Marianna’s bedroom to resemble a princess’s chamber, compete with four-poster bed and organza canopy.

One evening Dad has to work late, and when he finally turns his car into their cozy cul-de-sac, he sees that the cottage of their dreams is engulfed in flames. Is he worried about Grandmother’s furniture or the trendy window treatments? No; he has to be restrained by firefighters from charging into the burning building to rescue Mom and little Marianna. Nothing else matters. The objects aren’t important. He can’t breathe, he can’t think – until one of the firefighters guides him to a neighbor’s yard, where Mom and Marianna are sitting, shaken but otherwise unharmed, sipping hot chocolate. His world comes back into focus. All is well.

It is one’s abstract, intangible relationship to objects — not the objects themselves — that define one’s reality. Years ago I had to sell my father’s Morris chair, which I inherited when he died, in order to pay the rent. I loved that chair. It was comfortable. It was beautiful. It bore the indelible imprint of my dad’s bony butt. Years later, I bought another chair, a prettier, more comfortable chair, a “better” chair, as objects go. But I still miss the Morris chair.

Fantastic Security System

Fantastic Security System

It’s the intangibles that matter. Physical objects function as metaphors for feelings and ideas – which is not to say that food and shelter are unimportant but rather that they are important only in the context of our need and desire for them.

Do you sleep more peacefully at night because of your security system or the locks on your doors? You could feel just as safe with a pair of dragons guarding the house, or with the knowledge that all the bad guys had finally been incarcerated. Your goal is the intangible sense of safety, by whatever means it is achieved. Security systems, locks, dragons are nothing to you except as metaphors for safety.

Below is an excerpt from Guy Deutcher’s marvelous book The Unfolding of Language. It demonstrates how our language, and how all languages, for that matter, are strings of metaphors – not used in poetry or in poetic prose but in practical, everyday speech and writing.

Metaphors are everywhere, not only in language, but also in our mind…. Metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us… because metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction….

Metaphors which have become commonplace… are dismissed asdead metaphors…. They have come to be used so often in their metaphorical abstract sense that all semblance of their former vitality has been lost and they have firmly established themselves as the stock-in-trade of ordinary language….

People speaking of troubles brewing, anger simmering, resentment boiling, fanaticism fermenting, employees seething (literally: “boiling”) with discontent. People chew over new suggestions and digest new information…. We can have sweet dreams, bitter hatreds, sour relations, or half-baked ideas….

Someone Is Seething

Someone Is Seething

* * *

Sarah was thrilled to discover that the assessment board had decided to make her barmy rival redundant, after she suggested that he had made sarcastic insinuations about his employers….

Almost every word in [the sentence above]… was once a thriving image. If one puts the flesh back on these dry bones, and restores them to their original vitality, the result will be something like this:

Sarah was pierced to un-cover that the sitting-by plank had cut off to make her full-of-froth person-from-the-river overflowing, after she carried-under that he had made flesh-tearing twistings about those who fold him.

  • The word “thrill”… goes back to an Old English verb thyrlian, which originally meant “pierce” (and, incidentally, is related to the word nos-thryl, “nostril,” or “nose-hole”)….
  • “Rival” comes from Latin rivalis, meaning someone who shares the same river….
  • “Suggest” comes from Latin sub-gerere, “carry under”….
  • “Employ” comes ultimately from Latin plicare, “to fold”….

One could pick hundreds of other examples of abstract concepts, and the result would always be the same. They can’t help but go back to some terms from the physical world. Quite simply, then, metaphors flow from the concrete to the abstract because we need them to….

Suppose for a moment that there was no word around to describe “having” something. How would you go about expressing the notion? …Many languages today (most, in fact) don’t have a verb that corresponds to the English “have,” and so they use other ways of expressing possession…:

U menja kniga
at me book
“the book (is) at me” (= I have a book) ….

So or Soo (a Kuliak language, spoken in Uganda)
mek Auca eo-a kusin
aren’t Auca home-in clothes
“Clothes aren’t in Auca’s home” (= Auca has no clothes)….

Scratch a bit deeper… and you will find hundreds of metaphors that are no longer even identifiable remains, but merely dried-up skeletons whose original literal meanings have long been lost….

  • But comes from Old English be-utan, “by the outside.”
  • Except comes from Latin ex-cipere, “out-shut.”

[The author goes on to point out that “common intuition” understood the connection between space and time thousands of years before Einstein.] In language – any language – no two domains are more intimately linked than space and time…. We invariably speak of time in terms of space… [because] we think of time in terms of space. Consider some of the simplest words we use to describe spatial relations: prepositions such as in, at, by, from, to, behind, with, through. The examples below… show that all these spatial terms function just as well in the domain of …[time relationships]: 

Spatial relations already entail some degree of abstraction, since they are not things of substance that can directly be observed. (You cannot point at a “through,” for instance, any more than you can directly observe an “in.”) So might words for spatial terms in fact develop from something even simpler and more solid?

…There is hardly any part of the body which has not been enlisted as a metaphor for spatial and more abstract concepts, as the following examples illustrate.

“belly” →  “middle,” Albanian
në bark të javës
in belly-the week (= the middle of the week) ….

“mouth” → “in front of,” Mursi (spoken in Ethiopia)
dori tutuo
house mouth.of
“mouth of the house” (= in front of the house)

 (1) The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven, Ph.D

Next: Metaphorical You

4 responses

  1. Elizabeth Berg, author of *Joy School*, uses metaphor and other poetic devices in her prose so eloquently. She tells her story through 13-year-old Katie, who in this particular scene is sitting in “Father Compton’s church” on a Friday afternoon. Father Compton finds Katie alone, sitting on a pew, and he sits “in the pew opposite” her. He can see that Katie is troubled, and he leads her to his office for a chat. “He turns toward me, checks my face, then turns away again, continues his slow, bent-over walk toward his office. Yes, his back is saying. Right this way. The language of the body can be such a gentle thing.”

  2. Here’s another example of Elizabeth Berg’s artistry with words. In this case she’s using *simile* rather than *metaphor.* Katie is luxuriating in a warm bath and eating a Snickers bar. “The chocolate gets soft in just the right way, like it is relaxed, too.”

  3. Elizabeth Berg, master of the metaphor, again. Katie is 13 and in love with a 23-year-old service-station manager. She goes to the service station all the time and they play checkers. She’s drummed up the courage to tell him she loves him:
    “‘You are a very handsome man.’ My voice is wearing boots and marching.”

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