Saturday, March 9, 2013

Empathy: Opening Thoughts on the Use of Metaphor

I remember walking with my younger son one day when he was only four or five and looking down at his face and seeing that something was not quite right. So, I turned to ask him how he felt. He replied, “I feel sad.” At that moment I realized I had no idea how he really felt. What did “sad” mean?  Was it anxious? Depressed? Hungry? Isolated? Was he a miniature Hamlet who just didn’t know the word “melancholy” yet? The parent in me also felt sad because I deeply wanted to know how my son was feeling in the moment, and I felt...well, could I give a label to how I felt?

And so I began to listen more carefully to how the people around me were describing how they were feeling. What I noticed was that young children kept using metaphors and analogies to describe their feelings, and my students and my colleagues used abstract generalizations. The latter would say things like, "I am so stressed out." But the former would say things like, "I feel like the way the duckling in the pond on Boston Common did when she was looking around for her mother and couldn't see her because she was behind the long grass." 

And what I realized was that I always had a better understanding of how the children felt than I did of how the adults felt. In fact, I began to realize that the language itself was actually causing part of the problem. As we grew older we substituted abstractions for metaphors and, in the process, distanced ourselves from what we were truly feeling. 

And so I began to create "metaphor practice" in my classes. We would all create a metaphor about a time in the past 24 hours where we had experienced a complicated emotion. Like this one I still remember, "You know the cans of Ready Whip that you shake up and then you press the spout and it makes this sound like a rushing wind or a tidal wave and billows of foam come out, but then after you use a lot of the can you start to hear the hollow metallic ping of the whippet of nitrous oxide that is inside the can and then you press the spout and it is this thin, dribbling sound and you just get runny gunk-- I feel like that."

And what we would do is unpack the metaphor. You can try it with the Ready Whip one; it is remarkably rich. What we discovered is that we all (the metaphor creator included) came to a much fuller understanding of how each of us felt. There has been a great deal written about "role playing" as a way to teach people to be more empathetic, but I have been thinking that metaphor actually provides a simpler, more immediate and less complicated way to accomplish the same thing. 


 At this point I tried to see if I could attach metaphors to the experience of being in some of my colleagues' classes. (You can do this with your own as well, but it is easier to ask your own students. What you discover will surprise and amaze you, I guarantee.) There was one history teacher who taught class like Teddy Roosevelt going up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish- American war. There was an assembling of the troops, a pep talk about mission and purpose, an exhortation about attitude--and then, a full scale, high energy half an hour frontal charge at the topic where some of the troops fell by the wayside on the way up and were left for dead. But the ones who made it to the top were delirious, much more alive than they had felt forty minutes before.

Or the English teacher whose class was like playing the old 1960's Milton Bradely game of Operation. In that game you get a pair of tweezers and you have to remove the "Adam's apple" or the "wrenched ankle" or the "Charlie horse" from a cavity in the board (there were lots of metaphors in this game). The patients parts, however, were electrified so if you were quite dexterous and had well developed small motor skills you were rewarded with money for removing the infected part. But if you were not and your tweezers hit the side of the electrified opening, then a buzzer sounded and you lost your turn. The class was, truly, electrifying.

At about this time a book emerged by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson entitled Metaphors We Live By, and I started to teach a course whose "final exam" was the creation of a set of metaphors that represented the embedded foundation upon which each individual actually based their world-view. Lakoff and Johnson were interested in the broad sweeps of figuring out what was valued by a society by looking at their metaphors. (For example, "Time is money" - a very rich metaphor to mine! If "mining" is in fact, the metaphor you want to use for. You come to realize that metaphor is everywhere once you start listening carefully.)

Ultimately, this deeper awareness and exploration of metaphor can be a foundational cognitive skill for transmitting a larger life skill that can't be taught in traditional ways: empathy.
(to be further discussed).

1 comment:

  1. I feel very lucky to have been shown this article, and I will pass the good luck onto my English teacher.
    Thank You Very Much