Over the last few years my eyes have been slowly opening to the potency of metaphor. Above and beyond the beauty in a figurative phrase, I’m interested in how ideas embedded into our everyday language impact our perception, often without us realizing.
Let me first make it more tangible with an example: a 2011 study explored how different metaphors for crime affect how people think crime should be dealt with. Respondents to the experiment were given simple news articles, where rising crime was either framed as a beast that was ravaging the city or a virus that was ravaging the city. People given the “crime as a beast” metaphor tended to recommend stronger enforcement responses like tougher sentencing and more police on the streets. Meanwhile, people given the “crime as a virus” metaphor tended towards recommending preventative measures like education and policy changes. The framing metaphor had a more significant impact on people’s recommendations than politics or gender.
A separate study made an intuitively obvious finding: as metaphors become more established in society we begin to see them as less metaphorical, and process them more like literal truth. For example we see “love is a drug” and “life is a rollercoaster” as more literally true than “love is a fruit” and “life is a triathlon”. When it comes to firmly established metaphors like “life is a journey”, we struggle to see the figurative in phrases like “we are at a crossroads”. But if we see ourselves standing at a metaphorical crossroads, we are more likely to see our options as known, distinct, and limited – rather than emergent, blurred and fluid.
So, our metaphors are powerful and we don’t always notice them. Which brings us neatly on to darkness. The dictionary first offers us a physical reality, describing darkness as “1. The partial or total absence of light”. When we are offered darkness as “2. Wickedness or evil” we are suddenly deep into metaphor. “Light as good, darkness as evil” is a duality so firmly embedded into western language that it affects almost all of our cultural associations. But, whilst you can see where a connection can be drawn between darkness and danger (or at least uncertainty), there is nothing inherently evil about darkness. And an attachment to this metaphor can unnecessarily trap us in unwarranted insecurity, mistrust and fear.
So my question is this: what if, rather than lighting up our darkness, we started to see its unique beauty as equal to the beauty of light?
Without attempting to dismantle the foundations of western cultural thought, I’m will now propose four metaphors for darkness to add to our repertoire. There may be more, but these four metaphors are all congruent with the physical reality of darkness, are already alive (to some degree) in speech and culture, and offer us creative potential for a positive relationship with the dark.
(1) LIGHT AS NOISE / DARKNESS AS QUIET
A bright light makes us squint and cover our eyes in much the same way as a loud noise makes us cover our ears. The daytime is a hectic burst of vibrant activity, much of which thankfully subsides at the end of the day. As the calming twilight falls we welcome the silence. When the glare of the day is over, we can soften into the night. When we need to escape the chatter in our heads, we should breathe deeply; our mind will dim. If we are mindful to practice, we will slowly approach the gentle silence of endarkenment.
(2) LIGHT AS PLUTONIC / DARKNESS AS ROMANTIC
“You know the night time / is the right time / to be / with the one you love”. So goes the Nappy Brown song, made famous by Ray Charles. Plutonic relationships – friendship, commerce – are happy at midday in the town square; not weakened by being watched. But there is another connection we crave, that thrives under cover, in moments that are less exposed. “Turn your lights down low” sings Bob Marley “And pull your window curtains / oh and let the moon come shining in / into our life again”.
(3) LIGHT AS PUBLIC / DARKNESS AS INTIMATE
Light is broadcast. The glare of the sunshine is an open public announcement to anyone who cares to listen. Darkness is a whisper to someone specific. As night draws in, we draw close those with whom we most want to be connected. Intimacy isn’t shiny; her shadows speak only in confidence. People we value darken our doors. And those who, whether it’s clumsiness or malice, indiscriminately shine light on everything cannot be trusted with a secret.
(4) LIGHT AS TOIL / DARKNESS AS REST
We praise the daytime, but light makes us work. Traditionally the sun called us to hard labor; now fluorescent lights extend our toil long after the sun has descended. Welcome the darkness for God knows we need more sleep. If we cannot extinguish light, we darken ourselves for rest by closing the lids of our eyes. Only when the light is gone can we forget it’s bright call to stay alert. Our workload often dims during the winter, when longer nights tempt us into deeper sleep. Let us learn when to turn the lights off.
Additional reading: The Metaphors We Live By