Friday, July 24, 2015

When you're in a hole, stop, or keep going? The Problem with Metaphors

When we’re going through a difficult time or need a bit of encouragement, we often turn to quotations from the great ones. Turning to philosophers, Presidents, poets, artists, sports stars and great coaches can help. But, what if we get conflicting advice, or what if we can’t tell exactly what the phrase means? It might sound good at first, but then you realize it needs more of an explanation. 

Here’s a couple of examples:

Churchill once said “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” Obviously, he’s not talking about actual hell (if there is one). He’s talking about a tough time — that much, we can agree on. And as far as “keep going,” I’m pretty sure he means to not stop moving forward on things, to not allow all the bad things to keep happening, but instead to keep working, trying or doing whatever it takes. I think he’s saying to look at “hell” in a linear way, so that if you’re on this continuum, you’re merely passing through an area on that timeline. It will last for a while. But, if you keep moving, you’ll be out of it sooner. Right? Well, maybe not.

He could also be saying to keep “going through it.” He didn’t say where to go exactly…. out of it, through it some more, to a new place, etc. He just said “keep going,” which leaves open a world of possibilities… for example, to possibly suggest that maybe we deserve hell and ought to just move around there for a bit. Enjoy your stay in hell, but don’t sit, keep going through it. What if “hell” stops, when you sit idly? Did Churchill ever think about that? Was he not familiar with meditation or, perhaps, sitting by a stream and staring into the water until one feels relaxed? Immigration laws were probably pretty tight in Britain at the time, so maybe he wasn’t exposed to Eastern philosophies. 

That aside, I think it’s safe to say that he believed you just keep going and you’ll get out of it in time, though it’s uncertain how long that will last, because, again, he’s not clear on the duration. To be more clear, he might have said “when you’re going through hell, keep going for another three days, and it will likely be over, “it” meaning the bad experiences that you are currently involved in. At least, that’s been my experience.” or, “Just give it three solid days of hard work, then, if there are no signs of improvement, resign yourself to the reality that things are not going to get any better, and then just deal with that from there, possibly by binge watching your favorite Netflix show."

Which brings us to the same type of advice, but offered by a humorist, not a politician. Will Rogers once said, "if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Well, this is where it gets confusing. Rogers suggests that we stop what we’re doing. Churchill says to keep going and, to me, it all depends on whether our problems are vertical or horizontal. You see, if you take the Rogers point of view, everything goes up and down. If you follow Churchill, you’re more on a horizontal plane, so the answer should probably come from a geometry teacher, or physicist and not a politician or humorist. It all depends on your point of view. For example, If you’re a performer, you’re likely to say “the show must go on,” but if Churchill had said that, people would have thought he was a little light-headed. 

And there are still other questions. What if Churchill didn’t realize that we might be dealing with a “hell hole?”  Would he want us to keep going further into the hole, or possibly start digging laterally, or maybe cut an upward diagonal line until we get out? 

My message to those who use metaphors to make a point,  use one we can work with or one that makes sense visually, not one that makes us wonder whether to move up, down, stop or go. 

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