It’s my favorite feeling: when a really good idea hits me. Almost like I’ve been dumped face-first in a cold bucket of water and the chill is traveling all the way down my back, yet I can’t help but grin.
And then I nurture the idea, stretch it out, and tug at the corners until it starts to develop. It grows and grows and then suddenly I’m left cradling a full-grown idea.
And then I can’t seem to let it go. This little brainchild of mine has taken over my mind and my heart. Whenever it wanders into my brain, I feed it—breathe new life into it. I hold it close, become possessive and intensely protective. Without my care and guidance, after all, my precious idea might wilt; it might die.
This makes me sad, which is an odd reaction to thinking about the death of something so abstract, so conceptual, so very much not alive. But it’s true. Thinkers die, so ideas must too.
I’ll admit, it sounds odd. But the metaphor of an idea as a real, honest-to-god, living, breathing person isn’t just a feature of my own overly imaginative mind. In fact, using metaphors that describe ideas as living people is a common feature of the modern English language. One might breathe new life into an idea; it may be their brainchild; an idea can live on, while another might be a dead end. To refer to ideas as people is to endow them with a certain weight. We bring these ideas to life, help them develop and mature. And eventually, our ideas must die.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, celebrated cognitive linguists and philosophers, wrote a book in the ’80s called The Metaphors We Live By. This book explores the ways that metaphors are tools for using our everyday experiences to understand more abstract concepts. For example, their theory asks us why we might use a metaphor like “He won her heart” instead of “She cast a spell over him.” The first phrase reveals how we talk about love as a battlefield. (e.g. He is known for his many rapid conquests. She fought for him, but his mistress won out.) The latter compares love to magic (e.g. I was entranced by him, but now the magic is gone.) Lakoff and Johnson admit that using these metaphors is not something that people tend to be aware of. Regardless, they can have a great impact on not only how we speak, but also how we act. We use metaphors to express and take ownership of our ideas.
We don’t just talk about our thoughts as people. We actually create and develop ideas in a gestation-like process. We create them with care, and hold them close once we have created them; we become possessive over them.
On my first day of kindergarten, my mom cried—or so the family story goes. I was toddling to school, an enormous backpack tilting my tiny body backward. My mom held my hand as we made our way through the red gate, squeezing hard. I, of course, tossed off her hand and bounded down to the playground toward the bubbles. When I ask her about that day, she says the same thing. It’s hard work to raise a little kid, but you have to let them be active. You grew so much over so short a time, and it was incredible to see you take on a life of your own. I was so worried about you being safe but so excited to see you live.
If we apply a parental metaphor to an abstract concept, like an idea, we impart parental feelings onto the idea. For example, we tend to use life-giving metaphors with regard to ideas: He is the father of modern biology. Look at what his ideas have spawned. His theory gave birth to many developments in physics. In using these metaphors, we imply that a good idea is like a child. An idea requires work to mature; ideas are active; ideas can develop over time; ideas can take on a life of their own; ideas can live; ideas can die.
When I was 12, I pulled my little sister out of the way of a car. We were standing outside our dance studio, dutifully waiting for our ride home on gravel that poked our feet through our tights, tap shoes in hand. My sister had wandered a few steps out onto the smoother concrete of the street, when suddenly a minivan flew toward us. A rush of air slammed into my face, and I lunged forward to grab the back of her leotard, yanking her back onto the sidewalk. I don’t remember the car ride home, or even what she said. I just remember the cold terror that I felt at that moment when I thought my sister might die.
When we metaphorically compare ideas to people, we confer the same protectiveness and fear on them as I felt for my sister that day. For example, most great thinkers pray that their ideas will live on forever. Tragically, those ideas died off in the Middle Ages. That’s an idea we ought to resurrect. Where did you dig up that idea? These metaphors, which imply an idea can both live and die, hint that a good idea requires nourishment. Ideas depend on our dedication. Ideas must be cherished. Ideas demand sacrifice. Ideas can be mourned.
The people in my life are my biggest joy and my greatest frustration. I am jealous of them; I am intensely protective and endlessly proud. Through years of using unintentional metaphors, I have conferred these same sentiments on my ideas as well. I want to hold onto them, to help them grow and develop. I care about them deeply, and I am terrified that, without my care, they will wither.
Now, I am sitting in the rare volumes section of the library, surrounded by the dusty smell of books written by those who are long dead. Now, their ideas live only between fragile pages. Each idea was once faithfully, laboriously grown by someone who cared about it so deeply. Each idea was someone’s darling. I imagine each book reaches out a little when the patrons walk by, begging to be picked up from that idea graveyard and flipped through so that just for a moment, it might be brought back to life.