Sometimes a book changes how a person sees the world, or some part of it, forever. A few of those books for me are by Bonhoeffer, Frankl, and Nouwen. Nobody would be surprised to see the list.
As a student, I was also interested in languages, writing, words, wordplay, linguistics and the philosophy of language. (Not too far off course, I guess, for someone trying to figure out how to communicate the Word!) During that period, I read a book called Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson. The book transformed how I view many important elements of life.
The book suggests that there are over-arching metaphors that shape how we perceive and organize everyday realities, conceptual systems that define how we see the world. Once we accept the big-umbrella conceptual metaphor, then all our smaller word choices support the metaphor, and we get channeled into one way of seeing things that limits us to other possibilities for learning, hearing, thinking, and acting.
For instance, in our culture the predominant conceptual metaphor for disagreement is that Argument is War. Therefore to describe our experiences we reach for the easy expressions: I won, you lost; your claims are indefensible; I attacked her weak points; she demolished his argument; take your best shot; try this strategy, and you’ll wipe him out; you could destroy him with this tactic; he shot down my best ideas, that reinforces my point, etc. Other expressions that support the "Argument is War" construct are all those phrases we borrow from fighting, boxing, shoot-outs, and swordsmanship: He’s ready to put on the gloves; I’m targeting his weak spots; that was a direct hit; that idea was the knock-out punch; I was saved by the bell; you pierced the heart with that one; go for the jugular; that comment drew blood, and so on and on.
These expressions are the ready tools in the English language tool box for understanding and organizing disagreement, and every time we use one, we further narrow our options and outcomes when we disagree. It’s important to note that these expressions and metaphors don’t just help us talk about conflict; they actually create winners and losers. They actually make us look at those with whom we disagree as opponents instead of partners, and cause us to think in terms of losing ground and gaining ground, of victory or defeat. They shape how we interpret experience, and how we feel before, during, and afterwards.
Imagine if the overarching conceptual metaphor for disagreement was not war, but dance. The "Argument is Dance" conceptual framework would view participants as performers. Persons would play various essential and important roles, without which the dance would not be complete. One person might lead, and then another. Perhaps they’d have as the goal to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. Argument would become discourse and personal expression, with each performer taking his or her steps, some planned and rehearsed and expected and others spontaneous and improvised. People finish dances exhilarated and exhausted, and wanting to do it again. There are no winners and losers, no one is defeated or destroyed, and no ground is won or lost. No one says, "I’m on your side" at a dance.
Or imagine if the overarching conceptual metaphor was "Disagreement is Journey," and so we’d each step this way and that, pulling each other along and pushing each other forward toward truth. We’d discuss maps and compasses, pathways and detours, hills and valleys, obstacles and river-crossings. We’d focus on where we need to go, and whether we are farther along than the last time we talked. Rather than winning or losing, destroying and attacking, we might say such things as, "He really pushed you with that idea. Her suggestion took us a step higher. We made real progress, and I feel we’re getting closer and closer."
Reading that book nearly thirty years ago changed how I see conflict and argument. I confess that I also naturally fall back too often and too quickly to war metaphors for understanding disagreement in community, but I also have come to enjoy the dance and the journey. I love the exchange of ideas and how communities work things out.
For instance, whenever we faced a tough challenge or proposed a new initiative in our congregation when I served as pastor, we all knew a dance would follow. Some of the same members would arrive at the dance, and take the same steps they’d learned through the years. Some would enter the discussion with a predictable and necessary skepticism, others would always delve into the financial questions, and others would keep us focused on the mission. Some made us laugh together, and that was so much their predictable role that it was as if a choreographer had written them the script. New people would join us and they’d dance in styles we’d never seen, sometimes stepping on the toes of others! We all performed our steps, and someone looking down from the balcony would have applauded the intricacy, energy, and creativity we sometimes displayed. We’d finish exhausted and exhilarated, and we’d eagerly make plans for the next dance and the next time we’d meet to decide something else.
What metaphors do we use to sort out disagreement? Do we dance with our teenagers, or fight with them? If our only metaphor is war, what does victory look like? Does winning come by destroying? Everybody survives a dance.
Do we dance with those who see the world differently, or try to knock them out?
Here’s the thing about these metaphors: If we expect war, then war we find, and it becomes impossible to see our interchanges in any other way. But if we expect dance, something more graceful may result. If we expect journey, then maybe we move a few steps further along in our following of Christ.
Now, to totally mix metaphors:
May "the Lord of the Dance" bless us in our community life as we seek to follow the path of Christ.