In the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard and crew encounter a civilization whose entire language consists of cultural metaphors (“Darmok,” Season 5 Episode 2). Picard eventually learns to communicate with these aliens by learning their mythological stories, which were the basis of their metaphors of speech. Although this is science fiction, the aliens represent us: we are only able to communicate with each other because we have common references. Words in themselves are meaningless.
I Have Been To The Mountaintop
Today in the United States we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His speeches have always mesmerized and moved me, but his best speeches are filled with metaphors. This lack of concreteness nonetheless adds an element of earthiness to his messages.
This is because we live in our stories, the stories of our tribe. King had a masterful skill in evoking our stories through metaphors. As a Baptist preacher, he had a lifetime of experience rousing his congregation through biblical metaphors, especially.
His very last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” ends with a reference to Moses. Although King never mentions Moses, in essence, King is saying he is Moses. King says he has been to the mountaintop, and has seen the Promised Land. He is not sure he will ever get there, but he is certain that his people will. This sets the crowd wild with applause and excitement. King didn’t have to give an entire sermon on the life of Moses for anyone to be moved by his metaphor; he knew his audience knew and understood the story.
The story is this: Moses, after freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, leads them into a desert wilderness where they wander and have various misfortunes for forty years. Moses was the only Biblical prophet who every saw God and spoke with God directly, besides being a miracle-worker and the leader of an entire nation. So the people followed him all this time, believing him when he told them that God would eventually bring them to a new home, a new land, all their own.
For obscure reasons (debated by theologians over the centuries), Moses was killed by God just as the Israelites finally reached their Promised Land, but Moses did at least have a chance to see it from the top of a mountain before he died.
The story is powerful, and King was able to invoke it effortlessly in just a few sentences. Such is the power of our stories.
Try This At Home
What metaphors do you use in your social circles? What effect do they have? Most of us have heard the sarcastic “Livin’ the dream,” response from a co-worker in the office. Americans understand the metaphor, and the cynicism. But what would happen if we started throwing around metaphors of empowerment, instead?
Here’s an experiment: get a few friends/co-workers who want to practice public speaking or communication, and have one give a five-minute impromptu talk on anything they wish to talk about. Every minute, have someone else pull a metaphor out of a hat. The speaker must immediately incorporate the metaphor into what they are talking about. See how it changes the message, the mood of the speaker, the mood of the audience, the trajectory of the subject.
Here’s a short list of possible metaphors to write on strips of paper to fold and place in the hat (if you aren’t an American, devise a new list using your national metaphors):
Daniel in the Lion’s Den
Pilgrims on the Mayflower
Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby
The Journey of Johnny Appleseed
Molly Brown and the Titanic
Dorothy and the Yellow Brick Road
The Last Ride of Casey Jones
Ahab and the White Whale
The Battle of Little Bighorn
And if you do this, please share the results here in the comments!