We are all familiar with the metaphor of life as a journey, a cycle, a tragedy or even a comedy.
How accurate and precise are these metaphors and what can we learn from them?
Even before we start an analysis of the metaphors themselves, it is important to acknowledge something: all these images or symbols rely on and search for meaning. They all try to answer the question “what is life?” from a meaningful point of view, that is to say, they all presuppose that life is a certain reality with an intrinsic unit that has a certain meaning – and that is what makes the metaphor possible and agreeable.
The corollary of this is that, in all these metaphors, life is not a meaningless accident of matter. So let us start by assuming the previous departure point and admit that life can be in fact an accident of matter and therefore be devoid of meaning. In this scenario, meaning would be an artificial layer added to reality by mind (itself another accident of life), something that is not rooted in things themselves and exists only in the artificial universe of mind and words.
Such position is philosophically possible, even if somewhat contradictory. If mind is an accident without real correspondence in the material world (what really exists), then all mental and verbal constructs are by definition illusions. They exist by us and for us and therefore any extrapolation to the realm of real reality has no value. That applies to the proposition “there is no meaning in reality, only in our minds” itself.
On the other hand, the fact that the universe can be explained to a degree by mathematical equations and logical laws seems to indicate that mind, reason and logic are not mere fictions or illusions.
So, while conceding that a thorough discussion on the topic of idealism vs. realism vs. physicalism (or extreme materialism) would require a further analysis, I will position myself as a moderate realist and proceed to the question of life’s metaphors.
How accurate and useful are the metaphors then? If we analyze them closely, we will see that there is a common structure to all of them. A journey is something that starts in a certain point and courses through different places before ending somewhere. So there is a movement and there is necessarily time involved. A cycle is an interval of time with a course of events. And a tragedy is a dramatic unit, or play, with a theme that unfolds to its outcome or conclusion.
Through such synthetic exposition we can recognize common elements. It is true that each metaphor will have its own emphasis on one aspect or the other, but they all deal with time, unit and theme. That is to say, they all depend on and point to narrative. Aristotle defined tragedy – but one can argue he was really thinking about narrative – as a unit that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
This is the shape of history and this is the shape of human mind itself. That is why stories have always been so appealing to men and women throughout the ages, from myth to literature and modern films. This is, in my view, the main merit of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth.
Before concluding, there is an additional point I would like to touch upon. I recently came across the theory that we are wrong to look at life as a journey and should instead think of it as a play. Music would be the perfect analogy for life. This was presented as Alan Watts’ philosophy. I do not know whether it was an accurate depiction or not. I will address the depiction only, since I am not familiar with Watts’ philosophy.
This view seems to me to conflate different things that ultimately generate a fallacy. It begins by misrepresenting what journey really means. If one sees life as a journey, that does not mean that all the stages and goals have been preset and that life should follow a pattern (social, religious or other). The content of the journey is yet to be defined. In a way, that is the very meaning of journey: a discovery, an adventure. The proponents of a dualism play/journey seem to immediately assume that journey implies something predetermined and a path of following society’s expectations. Let me go back to Campbell’s work to sustain my complete rejection of this characterization of the journey.
Play, on the other hand, can mean mean both an attitude (or behavior) towards things (being playful, enjoying, not taking things seriously, playing a game, make-believe) and a performance (as in playing a character on a drama). In both instances there does not seem to me to exist any contradiction with seeing life as a journey. That there is a playful element in life – one that we should cherish, by the way – is undeniable. Johan Huizinga has shown how this element is present in culture, including myth making. If we are also playing a part in life, then we are still in the framework of the narrative that characterizes the metaphors above.
Finally there seems to be another misconception in what concerns goals and ends. In a video I saw, it was claimed that life was like playing music, which we do not immediately look forward to come to an end, we want to enjoy, whereas when we travel we just want to get somewhere. Now this can be deceitful: life’s metaphor as a journey is not about getting somewhere. We do not seek to get to the end of life as quickly as possible. That seems very obvious to me. The journey is the pleasure of it. We all want to enjoy as much as possible. Also, we cannot just play in life. Life is not just living the moment. Moments flow and pass by; we need more to hold on to, we need sustainability, values and love that do not change every moment but that we can count on throughout time. So, yes, life is a journey, one that we should try to make meaningful, while knowing that we will not be able to fit every little bit of it into a perfect narrative.