Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog
EL PASO – Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “I have said before that metaphors are dangerous.” They are a way to intuitively grasp difficult and complex concepts such as love, but … Kundera also says: “Love begins with a metaphor.” Metaphors are so powerful and flexible that we often use them to gloss over the difficulty of confronting the “thing” itself. We have sports metaphors, weather metaphors, sexual metaphors, but one of our favorite metaphors is the machine.
We love our machines; they are so inserted into our daily lives that we are tempted to view all sorts of constructs in mechanistic ways. At least since the time of Newton and his laws of motion, we have found this way of looking at the world very handy. The United States seems especially vulnerable to the pervasiveness of mechanical metaphors. We know that the mythical John Henry was a steel drivin’ man, better than the machine he competed against, morphing into hero machine himself over time.
In collusion with the health care industry, we have bought into the idea of the body as a machine with a vengeance. While we pay some attention to regular tune-ups and oil changes, we tend to drive ourselves off a cliff before we seek medical attention. And the doctors arrive in white mechanic suits, ready to replace worn-out pipes and parts, dented fenders, ready to drain old and add clean fluids. They write prescriptions for medications that will keep us running, more or less pain free, stop our leaks, and silence those knocks and noises, coughs and wheezes. Sometimes it’s a two-way street: we complain to our car mechanic that our engine coughs or sputters. And both types of mechanics now use other machines more exclusively than ever before to diagnose our problems.
The U.S. spends more money per capita on health care than any other nation, but we have not so much to show for it. Two of the most pervasive measures of the quality of health care in a country are life expectancy and infant mortality. Life expectancy refers to an average number of years we can expect to live after being born. Infant mortality is the likelihood of death in the first year of life; it measures prenatal conditions (e.g. diet of mother during pregnancy) and how vulnerable infants are treated in a society. We don’t win either car race, not by a long shot, despite the fact that we have spent so much money. We rank 50th and 46th respectively in these measures, behind such countries such as Greece and Spain and South Korea.
So maybe our metaphor is failing us. How we understand a problem and even whether we call it a problem, dictates at least in some measure, the policies we implement to address it. Our culture is so fearful of death that we assign doctors the role of gods in our culture, and we are back to the machine, deux ex machina, expecting that the inextricable problem of death will be magically solved by medicine, just as other problems were solved in the days of Greek stage plays. The non-western or Asian countries tend to view the body not as a machine, but rather as a garden. Gardens are tended; machines are repaired. Think about the implications of a switch in metaphors.
Recently, some writers have begun to criticize the way we mechanistically view economics, suggesting that laws of motion and thermodynamics are not sufficient to understand the world of money and finance. “Heating up” and “cooling off” are not what the economic “engine” is doing, nor is there a quick fix button for what ails it. Funny that these critics have also suggested organic as opposed to mechanistic metaphors. The problem here is that there really isn’t a quick fix in gardening. And we love (“let me count the ways”) quick fixes.
We have seen how “high yield” crops (and bonds) are more susceptible to pests (and risk), thus more pesticides are applied. These pesticides sicken workers, run off farm soil into streams and rivers (and banks and homes), kill fish and dreams, and create a vicious cycle. Our beloved mechanistic metaphor that encourages linear thinking has created a big, messy ball of twine. We cannot use it to save us from the Minotaur or find our way back home. Instead, it has wound itself into a Gordian knot and hardened into something not even a scalpel can cut.