The Mystery of Metaphor — What Do We Really Know for Sure?

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It should trouble us all when anyone regards any of our most important philosophical, religious, or even scientific questions as “settled.”

At the very core of human existence is the desire to know. All of us seek understanding of the world around us and our place in this vast and complex universe. But much of what we seek to comprehend is beyond simple, rational explanation. For that reason, much of what we crave understanding about requires us to make comparisons between that which we can’t readily understand and the simpler things about which we have a more intuitive grasp.

Many of the world’s greatest teachers have used storytelling filled with simile and metaphor to aid the cause of understanding principles and concepts hard to fully comprehend. When Jesus of Nazareth was trying to explain his vision of a more righteous, Godly world — one which folks at the time couldn’t easily imagine — he used simile to make comparisons with things people could more readily understand. For example, he likened the nurturing of such a world to planting one of the smallest of seeds (a mustard seed) which eventually becomes such a hearty and sturdy plant that even birds could use it as a foundation for a nest. The Buddha also used parables to explain more fundamental realities, such as likening the best usage of his teachings to carrying a raft that would serve a person well when they needed to ford a fast-flowing river but could easily become an unnecessary and limiting burden if one were to carry that same raft on one’s back on flat, dry land for long periods.

To understand the barely comprehensible, human beings have always relied on various major metaphors: philosophical, religious, and scientific. These metaphors provide us with a framework for approaching some degree of understanding about the truly unknowable. But sometimes, we take our metaphors all too seriously. Sometimes we even forget that they are only metaphors. Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that we really know what we have barely begun to understand. It’s at that point — the point at which we become self-assured in our “knowledge” — that something truly catastrophic happens: we stop seeking, stop talking, stop asking questions and debating, and stop listening. It seems that when we’re convinced we really know, true understanding eludes us.

Most of us could compile a substantial list of things we thought we knew for sure several years ago only to muse to ourselves now: What on earth were we thinking? Even what the best available science and technology gave us at the time 20 years ago appears “archaic” through the lens of today’s technological marvels. But new knowledge only supersedes older notions when we never surrender our skepticism, curiosity, or thirst for better explanations. It should trouble us all when anyone regards any of our most important philosophical, religious, or even scientific questions as “settled.”

As I entered my 60s a few years ago, I began to humbly reflect on how little I really understood with any degree of certainty. I began a serious retrospection of almost everything I had come to believe with any kind of conviction. In the process, I realized not only that I don’t know very much for sure, but also that my lack of understanding is not the result of a lack of education or experience. Rather, it’s simply an honest testament to the undeniable reality about just how much more there is to know than I already think I know. And although the major metaphors with which I’ve been instructed all my life have served me fairly well, I have to remind myself from time to time that they are only metaphors, never meant to be taken as the definitive truth.

Ours is a mysterious, complicated, and curious life. And we have barely begun to really understand and reckon with ourselves, let alone the world around us. Still, it’s deeply rooted in all of us to seek the answers. But that seeking demands a robust conversation among us all, and a humble recognition of how few answers we really have.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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