The beauty and danger of living a metaphor

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

image of a fiery phoenix against background of setting sun
Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

In those times when our lives have we have known them are shattered into pieces and we are left sorting through the rubble, our reactions tend to be a lot more complicated than we would ever have expected.

Grief itself is complicated with its volatile mix of sadness, anger, denial, despair, fear, guilt, and numbness all swirling together to demand our attention. And then there are all those other unexpected emotions that crop up, too.

In her book The Farewell Chronicles, Anneli Rufus explores some of the many other less talked about (and often considered less acceptable) emotions that may pop up when someone we know dies. Similar unexpected (and often unwanted) emotions may appear with other kinds of losses as well.

No matter the cause, we often punish ourselves for feeling something other than what we think we "should" feel at times like this by piling shame on top of the all the rest.

Dealing with this overwhelm of emotions is hard enough. Doing so while also dealing with the challenges of trying to rebuild our lives out of the shattered rubble left behind can feel like an impossible challenge.

It's like trying to build a shelter out of sand in a raging storm. Everything is chaos.

This is where holding on to some kind of metaphor for our experience can be helpful. It gives us a structure to begin sorting through our experience and a hope that it is possible to survive the chaos and rebuild a life worth living, even when we can't begin to imagine what that new life might look like.

For me, the metaphor of kintsugi has been that structure and hope for me to cling to in those times when the storms of life have thrown chaos and destruction my way, but that's hardly the only metaphor out there.

I've also found the metaphor of the phoenix, who burns to ashes in the pyre of its nest and is reborn to new life out of the ashes of the old one, to be a helpful metaphor at times.

The transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly through the stage of the chrysalis is another powerful one that has helped me hold the pieces together.

Other times, the image of a seed (or acorn) dying and breaking open in the earth to give forth new life, or a chick breaking open its shell to emerge, or a dragonfly emerging from the water and its life as a nymph have all given me something to hold onto in the midst of the storm to give structure and hope to my experience.

These metaphors have been life-saving in so many ways, and I can't imagine trying to walk through the chaos of life's storms without these tools to anchor me.

And yet, there is a danger in these metaphors when we over-identify with them. They are meant to be loose frameworks or scaffolding that provide some support to help us through the storm and not mirrors that describe our entire experience faithfully.

There will always be aspects of the metaphor that don't quite fit our experience and parts of our experience that don't match up with the metaphor. We get ourselves in trouble when we lose sight of the inevitability of these gaps.

In my work as a kintsugi artist, I see this confusion pop up rather frequently—both in conversations with customers and in articles I read on the web.

Many people find that going through this kind of heart-breaking experience to make them stronger in dealing with future challenges. For those who identify with the kintsugi metaphor as part of their experience, this leads to the idea that objects repaired with kintsugi are therefore stronger than they were before.

In fact, I see this even stated with some frequency in blog posts and news articles introducing kintsugi, but there's nothing about the actual art form of kintsugi that parallels this human experience.

Most kintsugi repaired vessels are to be used only decoratively. They are no longer up to the wear and tear of normal use that they would have sustained originally. This is equally true of the work I do. The stones need to be treated with greater care than an unbroken stone would require in order to remain intact over time.

The challenge comes when people encounter this truth about the art form of kintsugi and the resulting repaired objects and therefore feel like they must apply that to their own lives and experience as well.

But there's absolutely no reason why this should be so. The art of kintsugi is about finding beauty in our scars as they testify to our healing. It is possible for me to identify new strength as one of those sources of beauty without needing for increased strength to also be true of the object.

This is just one example of how taking a metaphor too far can cause it to shift from being a source of hope to a source of discouragement or shame. It's equally possible for this to happen with any of the other metaphors I've mentioned.

When choosing a metaphor (or a set of metaphors) to help provide structure and hope to your experience, it's important to hold them loosely. Where they are helpful to structuring your experience, make use of them. Where they don't fit your experience, find another one that better expresses that aspect of your life to complement the first.

The most important thing is to make the metaphor serve you and your actual experience, not to try to mold yourself or your experience into a metaphor that doesn't fit.

What metaphors have you found helpful in challenging times in your life?

How did those metaphors fit your experience? How did they diverge?

How comfortable are you with holding loosely the metaphors you identify with?

Are there any metaphors you are currently using that you may need to hold a little more loosely to get maximal help from them? What might that look like?

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