top of page

Metaphors and the kingdom of the sick

Words have the power to heal, and also the power to corrupt, discriminate, blame. It is a dangerous affair for us writers, to try to convey our message in a manner that walks this tightrope. But if time has taught me anything, it is that words can also reframe the way we think and behave around those of us who are going through difficulties, through mental and physical impairments. And we can do this in multiple ways, but primarily through the use of metaphors that may, in fact, just inform our collective thought processes.

Metaphors are more common than you think. We actually use about 6 of them per minute! As you can see, we’re all sort of metaphor machines in some way or another. Hélène Schumacher says that we use this semantic tool to make sense of complex topics, to help us connect to one another and shape our thought processes. Aristotle, in his work Poetics, identifies a metaphor as exactly this, “an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” But even more importantly, metaphors are simple ways that can facilitate connection between ourselves and the societies around us.

Metaphor thinking has been around for thousands of years, if you really think about it. One of my favorite examples of their use in our world comes from the Wayuu, a relatively large indigenous community of Colombia, who reside in La Guajira, a region of the country adjacent to Venezuela. Due to centuries of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the Wayuu have been required to learn Spanish, but unlike many indigenous communities in the Americas, they have still managed to maintain their own language–Wayunaiki. The language is used to describe many things, as one should do, but it is especially important in translating spiritual concepts. There is a word–’Yolu’ja’–which in Wayunaiki is a malignant spirit that robs people of their identity, but also a word that is used as a metaphorical explanation to loss, illness or any catastrophes. In contexts such as these, metaphors are soothing, resourceful, and socially powerful.

However, throughout much of history when it relates to the realm of diseases and the ailing, metaphors were used to back the punitive nature of certain societies in their relationship to these sick individuals. During the Middle Ages, leprosy was thought to be an emblem of decay or mental illness was seen as someone “being possessed by the devil,” which required exorcism in accordance to Christian theology. Looking back from our contemporary vantage point, giving a disease a meaning through the use of metaphors or figures of speech could be in the contender for the worst ways to handle a public health issue. The ailment itself becomes a target of scrutiny, judgment and humiliation, and even worse, the horror associated with such conditions gets imposed onto other things.

When this perceptive shift occurs, diseases often end up becoming adjectival, which means they get associated with other ill-favored occurrences. In French, for example, a run down façade can be called lépreuse. And not only that, metaphors used to describe people in certain medical conditions can stigmatize and distance them from the change that they truly want to see and hear. When someone has cancer, we may say that this person is “fighting” against the disease, or is going through a “crusade”. Cancer is a “monster,” a “murderer.” I’ve certainly done that a couple of times. The interesting thing is that when we express our feelings using these metaphors, which, in our minds, are meant to bring solace to the sufferer, we may just attribute these patients as the sole culprits for the development of these diseases. That is, it becomes not our responsibility to offer support, but theirs to get better and endure the period of convalescence by themselves. And, in the end, the sick do not get their agency, they are treated as less capable, less tolerant and resilient than they actually are. Like as if we were treating them as newborn, umbilical beings.

Sadly, with cancer patients, or with any other person with a disease, the same preconceptions arise from the use of metaphors. “This is cancerous behavior”. “We won’t let this cancer spread to our community.” Or, as Simon & Garfunkel’s song “The Sound of Silence” goes, "fools, said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows.” What good does that do? It serves a singular purpose: to divide and disparage.

I arrive at these conclusions with the great help of Susan Sontag’s work “Illness as metaphor,” written in 1978. Sontag dispelled a great understanding about this topic, but now, we must go further–how can us, as individuals, members of communities, societies, governments, companies, organizations, mold collective thinking through metaphors so that it positively impacts the lives of those who have been struck with challenging diseases? How can we give them their agency, their life force back, so that they themselves can voice the true extent of their conditions? Metaphors may serve us well in assimilating to the new, but it should do more than just creating a kingdom of and for the sick.

As like any other communication tool, metaphors can be used for good or for bad. If we mismanage them, we might run the risk of silencing the voices of the unheard, of the convalescent, because their experiences matter to us and to the world. This kingdom that we created from our own volition needs to be tamed down. We must water the soil, so that our seeds as functional metaphors can have the power and resilience to grow and bear fruits. Without this sacrifice, neither will the soil, nor will the fruits be of much significance. Metaphors, henceforth, are our allies, are they not? Let the tongue speak its truth! And so the proverb goes: “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”


bottom of page