(about neighborhoods, containers, metaphors, and non-physical reality)
I live in a container. Actually, I live inside a series of containers, one of which is Victorian Village. I know that our neighborhood is a container because of the way I talk about it when answering the question, “Where do you live?” My answer is usually something like “I live IN Victorian Village.” Your answer might be “I live just OUTSIDE OF Victorian Village on 3rd Avenue.” Since we talk about our neighborhoods as if they have an inside and an outside, we must experience them and think of them as containers. This applies broadly to any geographic area (I walk my dog IN Goodale Park, I eat at restaurants IN the Short North, I ride the bike trails IN Columbus, etc.) I spend time in all of these containers not because I actually do, but because I say out loud that I do.
The “container” metaphor is ubiquitous for us, and we use it all the time (far beyond mere geography) to express ideas about our lives. We fall IN love, we’re OUT of a job, and we fall INTO a coma. We OPEN and CLOSE topics for discussion. We find ourselves IN a good mood, IN a new situation, IN a quandary, INTO a new hobby. George Lakoff explains in “Metaphors We Live By” that this is due to one of our earliest and most enduring core experiences of self: that of “a container, bounded by a [flesh] surface.” We ourselves are containers, organs and fluids wrapped up in a sack of skin (or as Star Trek’s crystal microbrain of Velora III referred to humans, “ugly bags of mostly water”) so it makes sense that we understand our world in terms of containers. We don’t try to do this, but since we unconsciously experience ourselves as containers whenever possible, we interpret our experiences using the container metaphor. We have no choice.
Additional metaphoric language has unconsciously emerged from our most basic physical interactions with our world. For example, “time is a commodity” since we spend it and save it, and “argument is war” since we defend claims, attack points, and win or lose arguments. One of our most embedded metaphors is that ideas have orientational value. UP is good, and DOWN is bad. For example: the quality of Goodale Park’s grassy area around the central triangle went UP after Wheeler Dog Park was created…
…but the quality of that same area recently went DOWNhill.
This orientational value has been present ever since we first experienced that physical dichotomy. When the jaws of saber-toothed tigers prepared to snap our necks, we were DOWN on the ground. When we prepared to plunge pointed sticks into our own prey, we were standing UP. When knocked unconscious by enemies, we’ve been DOWN, and when we’ve been holding the flint-studded clubs ourselves, we’ve been UP. I STAND UP to a bully, I LOOK UP TO my mentors, and LOOK DOWN ON people who cheat the poor. I LOWER my opinion, HEIGHTEN my awareness, feel DOWN or DEPRESSED, and RISE to the occasion. UP is good and DOWN is bad. We consistently use these ideas in our language.
But ideas themselves do not possess up or down orientational value, nor are they containers. Ideas are not geographically located even though it’s unconsciously difficult to avoid believing that they are. Ideas are more like “friendships”, which exist and are real, but are not physically located anywhere. We believe that friendships have physical locations, as evidenced by our use of language: we BUILD friendships, and anything we build must be located somewhere. This reflects our natural inclination to represent our non-physical experiences using familiar, physical symbols. All of us would probably say that our friendships are real. But if they are “real” in a conventional sense, then where are they located? Since we don’t doubt their reality, I think the answer is that friendships are absolutely real, but they are real in a different way. You can build a friendship, but not in the same way that you build a tree house. You can find friendship, but not in the same way that you find a lost sock.
Even Victorian Village, while composed of many physical objects, is not itself an actual physical object. We consider it to be real, and we describe it as if it were a container, although it has artificial and imprecise boundaries. How deep in the dirt of my yard is Victorian Village? How high in the air? How far into High Street? We humans have imprecise boundaries, too. The truth is that we merely feel as though we are independent containers. Our actual connection with everything else is continuous as one thing blends into the next. Paraphrasing Alfred North Whitehead from a recent SDD article: where does a chair end and I begin? Which atom belongs to the chair, and which atom belongs to me? The chair and I are both perpetually gaining and losing atoms. We are not exactly differentiated from our surroundings, nor are we exactly self-identical as time slips by. No actual precise divisions exist between any two “separate” objects. It is an illusion we have created to keep us in our comfortable containers (and to keep us from going insane).
If we believe that “relationships” and “neighborhoods” exist, then we obviously believe in a non-physical reality – an alternate, unconventional reality that is also the realm of other non-measurable phenomena, like belief and trust. If you only acknowledge things that you can touch and/or define physically, then you can’t really believe in friendship, Victorian Village, or Goodale Park. Since you probably do believe in lots of stuff within this non-measurable reality, it is likely that you are much more mystical than you might have imagined.