Metaphors

When we can’t find the right words to adequately express a situation or experience, we usually turn to metaphors. Having lived my life interpreting faith to others, I’ve used a lot of metaphors in my life. David James Duncan, author of The River Why wrote that we often don’t know what we are talking about, but when we talk about love we really don’t know what we are talking about. Of course that doesn’t prevent us from trying to talk about love. We say God is love. And I know that is a simile, not a metaphor. But then when we try to describe love, we turn to a host of different metaphors. Love is like a rainbow. Love is like a mountain. Love is like the ocean. We have a thousand metaphors that we use. In that same book, Duncan says, “Love is like poison oak.” It is an itch you can’t scratch and you can’t explain it to someone who has never had it. I’ve use the full Duncan quote in wedding meditations from time to time. It always brings a smile to the faces of the congregation and it touches us something deep within us because we struggle to find words when we talk about love.

Because I deal in metaphors all the time, I am constantly evaluating the metaphors we use. Saint Patrick is said to have used a shamrock as a metaphor for the trinity. I’ve used the air in a balloon as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. I’ve spent considerable amounts of time, over a lot of years, thinking about metaphors and how they are used and what might be a better metaphor for a particular idea or concept.

It is fairly natural, then, to use war as a metaphor for a pandemic. It is natural, in part, because people have done it a lot. Our present has used the war metaphor repeatedly in all kinds of media. Some of the frontline doctors have used the metaphor to describe the casualty rate and the chaos and confusion that is present in some hospital settings in the places where the spread has been intense. I’ve heard the war metaphor used to encourage people to shelter at home and not go out.

When war is used as a metaphor for a pandemic, it is important to remember that in history pandemics have often occurred in conjunction with war. The Spanish flu pandemic definitely was spread by soldiers who had participated in war. There was a direct relationship between the spread of the virus in the United States and soldiers returning from the front lines in Europe. A pandemic is a worldwide event and so this pandemic invites war metaphors. For my generation comparisons to the war in Vietnam come to mind. In that war there were a little more than 58,000 US deaths with another 1600 missing in action. In the United States there have now been 67,067 deaths from COVID-19, so the comparison is fairly easy.

Leaders use the war analogy to reinforce a couple of important points. One is that a concentrated effort is required to confront the situation. Just like a war, resources and distribution are critical in pursuing the response to the pandemic. Like a war there are casualties. And like a war, the pandemic demands dramatic governmental action that is outside of the usual. Specifically, huge amounts of governmental spending are focused on the pandemic, just as is the case when the nation is at war.

To those elements, I would add that wars have permanent effects on the combatants. Life is changed forever for those who are swept up in a war. Also, wars are not completely winnable. Even though leaders speak of winning wars, the reality is that the cost of defeating an enemy is so high that it is often difficult to determine which side won and which side lost.

All metaphors, however, have their limitations. I am having trouble with the metaphors we are currently using for this pandemic. In a war attempts are made to distinguish between military and civilian. We speak of civilian deaths as “collateral damage.” In a pandemic all of the victims are innocent. And everyone is a combatant. The slowing of the death rate and flattening of the curve is dependent upon all of the people taking precautions and observing certain disciplines. Furthermore the grief is as intense when the victim is a resident in a nursing home as it is when the victim is a nurse working in emergency rooms. Every casualty is a tragedy.

Wars have established rituals for grief and loss. For years I served as a bugler, playing taps for military funerals. I know the rituals of honoring those who have died and addressing the grief of those who are left behind. This pandemic, however, has called into question our rituals. Before coronavirus we gathered in large groups to express our grief and to offer support to family members. We had a funeral and then we had a lunch. Those activities are temporarily suspended. Now we don’t gather. A livestream of the service is sent out over the internet. Grief is expressed from a distance. We are left wondering how we will express our grief and our support to those who are grieving. Two memorial services that are currently “on hold” in our congregation are for musicians who gave years and years of faithful dedication to our church choir. Our way of grieving in the past would be to have our choir sing. Now that is not an option. So we are pushing back the dates of the memorial services because we want to have a proper memorial with a choir and we hope that one day we will be able to do so without being irresponsible and risking further spread of the virus.

While we continue to need to use metaphors, we also are reminded that none of our metaphors are quite right. In this season of our lives we continue to look for new metaphors, knowing none will be perfect.This pandemic seems more like a flood than a war from my point of view, which explains yesterday’s journal post and the ideas that continue to circulate in my mind.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!