The metaphors we use for life tend to involve travel — a path; a journey; a quest; a road you’re on; you can have a peripatetic life — you can be nomadic; you can be itinerant. You can be a wanderer or a roamer or a migrant or an immigrant. Or merely unsettled. You can even be on a conveyor belt. You can walk on water; you can walk on thin ice. You can be walking in a mine field. You can be in a trackless forest or a trackless desert.
You can be on a path; you can stray from a path; you can be headed in the wrong direction; you can be lost; you can steer for the ditch. There can be false starts and wrong turns. You can follow maps or footprints or cairns. You can take the high road or the low road; you can take the road less travelled. You can strike out for your own territory; or you can follow Emerson’s advice:
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
You can follow Led Zeppelin’s advice: “there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” But, “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Why is it that that our lives get jammed into a journey or road metaphor? I suspect it results from the fact that our daily, ordinary lives are a real mess. Chaos, even.
Faced as we are with each moment and every day asking “what next, sucker?” it’s comforting to think that there are ditches on both sides of the road, so at least we know it when we’ve steered into a ditch. Because, in real life, even that is often not obvious.
After all, being on the wrong road or going the wrong direction at least implies that there is a right road and a right direction. And that’s comforting. Because life so often looks like a . . . trackless desert.
For me, anyway, when I look back on my life, I’m simply amazed that anything worked, and that I’m here at all.
There must be some pattern, mustn’t there?
The contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls this sort of thinking “fate kitsch.” You know “kitsch” — cheap little tchotchkes. Cosas baratas. “Fate kitsch” is when you’re letting all the cultural trash that surrounds you make your life-decisions for you.
“It’s too late.”
“It’s too early.”
“You’re too skinny.”
“You’re too fat.”
“You’re too young.”
“You’re too old.”
“You’re too poor.”
“Wait! Have patience!”
And soon our lives — our fate — is being ruled by these cheap trinkets. But here’s the thing: yes, life is a linear process. But the metaphors we rely on to define our lives, what we can do in our lives, and the directions we feel impelled to follow are all . . . metaphors.
And there’s still time to change the metaphor you’re on!