On Metaphor

In the Arabic language, the study of rhetoric, ʻilm al-balāgha, is fascinating.

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There are verses in the Qur’an that take metaphor, language and philosophy and lyrically blend them all together in one, startling space.

There is a beautiful type of extended metaphor in the Qur’an, and this particular verse (below) I like to think about when it comes to the death of a loved one, and the guilt over our part in their death:

 

إِنَّمَا مَثَلُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا كَمَاء أَنزَلْنَاهُ مِنَ السَّمَاء فَاخْتَلَطَ بِهِ نَبَاتُ الأَرْضِ مِمَّا يَأْكُلُ النَّاسُ وَالأَنْعَامُ حَتَّىَ إِذَا أَخَذَتِ الأَرْضُ زُخْرُفَهَا وَازَّيَّنَتْ وَظَنَّ أَهْلُهَا أَنَّهُمْ قَادِرُونَ عَلَيْهَآ أَتَاهَا أَمْرُنَا لَيْلاً أَوْ نَهَارًا فَجَعَلْنَاهَا حَصِيدًا كَأَن لَّمْ تَغْنَ بِالأَمْسِ كَذَلِكَ نُفَصِّلُ الآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ (10:24)  f

 

  • The parable of the life of this world is but that of rain which We send down from the sky, and which is absorbed by the plants of the earth [37]whereof men and animals draw nourishment, until – when the earth has assumed its artful adornment and has been embellished, and they who dwell on it believe that they have gained mastery over it[38] – there comes down upon it Our judgment, by night or by day, and We cause it to become [like] a field mown down, as if there had been no yesterday. [39] Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people who think – 10:24 (Asad)

 

I went to a baby’s funeral yesterday, and I thought hard about this metaphor. As human beings, we accomplish incredible things, death-defying acts, we are capable of breathtaking architecture, and tremendous charity, but when a baby dies, when we lose a member of our human family, we are utterly helpless. We are reminded that, though we may believe we have ‘mastery’ over everything, we do not create life, nor do have any hope in demanding our own immortality.

Every farmer who prays for sunny days during hay making understands this helplessness, as do the doctors who must tell another young patient that they have stage 4 cancer. Every mother who loses her child feels her insignificance, just as the poet who has knowledge of Arabic feels upon reading the Qur’an, even one like Labid whose poem was written by scribes in gold ink.

When Umar (ra) asked Labid, the famous pre-Islamic poet who had embraced Islam, to recite for him some of his poetry, Labid began to recite the Qur’an. “This is not what I asked you,” Umar remonstrated. Labid replied: “Well, I have given up composing poetry after Allah gave me al-Baqarah and aal-Imraan.” (Narrated from Qurtubi)

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Vainglory

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I like this word.

Several of my friendships have been unbalanced because of the vainglory that mushrooms inside humanity. It is as nauseating as it is pitiable to witness the romance of one, narcissistic person with their narcissistc selves. A fascinating insight into the massage of ones ego is this hilarious piece written by Jill O’Rourke:

If you’ve ever watched America’s Next Top Model, you know that it’s a passionate love story between Tyra Banks and Tyra Banks, set against the backdrop of a modeling competition. So imagine what a love affair Tyra can have with herself on social media, a technology that was invented for people to talk about themselves.

Read more: http://www.crushable.com/2013/08/02/entertainment/tyra-banks-twitter-best-funniest-tweets/#ixzz3plto4Xbt

Ah, the love story that permeates most of ones life. The glossy-magazine sheen of facebook selfies and makeup-pouts allow the crying child inside feel as if one is the cover star of Hello magazine, finally.

I love what comment-leaver Darcie says on an article for the Telegraph magazine:

I’ve begun evaluating my motivations when it comes to taking photos with friends and then whether or not to post those photos. Am I trying to capture memories of a special moment so I can revisit them and remember? Or am I thinking about what would look cool on Instagram and prove to others that I’m loved? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/21/t-magazine/female-bffs-power-couples.html?_r=0

Don’t misunderstand me, there a many forms to manifest ones vainglorious avatar, to spill out as deeply self-involved and annoy others with constant updates of ones self-labelled achievements like an irritating pop-up message onscreen that won’t let you get on with your own work.

Yet the particular brand of self-involvement required to actively create a personality online, an alternate, magazine self, with other virtual, magazine friends, means that less thought, attention and investment is made in the world one lives in.

I’ve found that a major impetus of the vainglory is to simply feel wanted and appreciated:

The desire for fame has its roots in the experience of neglect, in injury. No one would want to be famous who hadn’t also, somewhere in the past, been made to feel extremely insignificant. http://www.thebookoflife.org/your-desire-to-be-famous-and-the-problems-it-will-bring-you/

And so this moving, very honest and pathetic confession by Rachel Vorona Cote below, brings together all the elements of vanity that cause our imbalanced moments. The insignificance and neglect once experienced haven’t been fully examined, understood and accepted, so the only solution is to blame oneself:

“I can’t recall the details of the fight that prompted me to self-harm. I only know that I had angered one of my girlfriends and wanted to punish myself. This wasn’t unusual for me. I have never fought gracefully with women. From the earliest, I felt any misstep on my part carried an elephantine weight. Both shame and pride would burn in my stomach. I was a wretched friend, I would think to myself. No, I was obviously misunderstood. Regardless, I was going to lose her.

I was going to lose her—that was always my fear. My trespass didn’t matter. It was less what I’d done wrong than my paranoia and neediness that would inevitably weary my friend. I would take her departure as a bitter loss, but also as a personal failure. In my adolescence, when my heart thumped to the rhythms of social acceptance, foundering in friendship seemed like the biggest of all recipes for disaster.

…I know that I tend to need my friends in a more urgent way than they typically need me, and this friendship was no different. Her conversation and emails helped make my world more coherent. I had hoped that my company was similarly meaningful to her, and that she missed me too.

…My apologies were like clumsy origami. I hid the shame of my self-punishment inside expansive apologies. I was always apologizing not only for what I had done to injure my friend, but also for my own narcissistic masochism.

As I became more self-aware, I grew a little out of this intensity and myopic narcissism, but not all of it. At 30, I still worry that I’ve wronged or even mildly aggravated someone I love. My sometimes-disproportionate reaction to minor gaffes betrays my fragile sense of self, which I have based too much on the opinions of others.”

I have seen the deer-in-the-headlights expression of women that are as self-involved as this, especially since I lost you and my friendship lists underwent a mass-culling. I have realised the imbalance in my relationships, and confronted those that were far too needy around me. They were just my virtual friends, my facebook-magazine friends. Vainglory threatens to remove us from our human connection to each other and live in a superficial, airbrushed, CV-orientated, botoxed shell of a world.

What it means, I have realised, is that behind the photo-ready fun of a group of girls having coffee, a far more nuanced set of emotions threaten to spill out. Women don’t talk about the pressures of being around each other since individualism became central to our collective philosophy.

Durkheim’s critique on the number of decisions we are weighted with helps us understand how difficult this pressure, this ‘status anxiety’ (as Alain de Botton terms it) can get amongst people with whom you seem, on the surface, to have a great deal in common.

All the time spent around their friends, or posing for pictures together, what is happening is a lot of sizing up, mental arithmetic on numbers (age, weight, height), storing up details, carrying resentments and, eventually, before the friendships die a sudden death, sitting around a table pretending to still like each other.