Tuesday, January 10, 2012

3 Metaphors to Live By

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most applicable to daily life. Three of the most useful to me come by way of my husband, the airline industry, and Buddhism. Each functions literally, and each one works metaphorically for many situations in this life.

The first is from my husband. Pick your speed and drive at that speed; if drivers are slower, pass them; if others are faster, they can pass.

We seem to get into odd competitions over many things and often with little logic. Some have to do with speed -  how fast one can complete a task like lawn mowing, ironing, writing a report. Others, like how many hours to sleep, or what financial priorities should be, or what party to vote for can be the subject of dispute, not to mention the target of advertising.

It's not that we cannot be swayed by new and better information regarding our "speed" in life, or that we should choose anything which would endanger others or be illegal; rather it's that the competitions and discussions arising from personal differences often take on epic proportions and have little to do with facts. Simply "driving at one's own speed" without argument, judgement, or discussion works awfully well.

The second idea to live by comes from the airline industry. If the need arises, put on your own oxygen mask first, then assist others with theirs. 

We tend to feel selfish if we help ourselves first; how could a parent take care of his or her own breathing, leaving a child possibly to suffer, or worse.  We are told this on airplanes because children and others less able need us to be okay, so we can help them.

People pleasers and those who take on too much for others would do well to follow this advice. If they make themselves sick from overwork, they won't be of any help to anyone and most likely will make things worse. We have to be able to breathe in order to be able to make sure others can.

The third idea is the teaching tale called the empty boat, from Buddhist tradition. In this story, a man is in a boat on a river, and another boat begins to careen wildly toward him. As the boat increases speed and zeroes in on the man, he waves his arms, swears, yells, and becomes very angry with the driver of the other boat. He wonders who would want to kill him and how anyone could behave like that; he gets himself very worked up. As the boat narrowly misses him, he sees that it is a driver-less boat. His upset with the other driver was moot. Buddhist tradition does not mention anything about blood pressure!

There is a stretch of road near my home that changes from two lanes to one after an intersection. For blocks before that intersection, drivers jockey for position, wanting to be first in the single lane. I used to get caught up in this sometimes, until I began to notice how often the other driver turned off and wasn't aiming to beat me to the intersection at all. "Empty boat," I would say to myself. One has to be so foolish only a few times before the "empty boat" comes to the rescue.

The book All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum preceded me by a couple of decades with the idea that some of the best advice for living comes from very basic situations. These three work for me.


Jewel said...

A very useful post, and I will try to remember these especially at stressful times in life.

ChrisJ said...


I really do find them useful, especially the empty boat one.

Hels said...

"All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" knows that some of the best advice for living comes from very basic situations, or from very early guidance. That is so true!

I had a discussion last week with two other 60 year olds about what we remember from our mothers' sayings. Some of the sayings were a bit silly, I suppose, but many have stood the test of time. Most to the point, we remember them 50 years later.

ChrisJ said...


I remember many of my grandmother's sayings - a penny saved is a penny earned, for instance. I know we rolled our eyes at them as kids, but do understand them later.

Owen Gray said...

My wife, who is a physiotherapist, works in Ontario's Home Care program. She sees everyone -- from the pillars in the community to those who are barely getting by.

We don't talk about details; but, as someone who taught here for twenty years, I know that lots of people are simply dancing as fast as they can -- at their own speed.

ChrisJ said...


Makes me wonder about the truth of the metaphor - what exactly is our own speed and how much unconscious influence does everything else have on it?

Judie said...

This really is a very useful post, ChrisJ! The last incident particularly interested me because in Oro Valley, there are several roads that change from 4 to 2 lanes. Many people DO speed up to get ahead of other drivers. In fact, I have seen police cars do this, and one almost caused an accident. I have learned that if I just maintain my speed, these issues don't bother me. Eventually, I will get where I am going, and I will get there in one piece!

P. M. Doolan said...

I like them.

ChrisJ said...


I have to remind myself at times of the empty boat to avoid getting caught up in that race!

ChrisJ said...


Thanks. they really do apply in many situations.