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We Need a Better Metaphor than War

Like many of you, I have listened to countless federal, state and local leaders grappling with the challenges facing our world. I’m deeply appreciative of and sympathetic to the unprecedented problems they are seeking to address. As the days have now become weeks, I’ve noticed a theme: the framing of this crisis as a “war,” a “battle,” and a “contest to win.” Yesterday, I watched the president’s news briefing, and was shocked by his defensive reaction to the simple question, "What do you say to Americans who are scared?" The president was reactive, defensive and shaming. He could not conceive that he had any other role than Commander in Chief at a moment when he was being asked to be Comforter in Chief.

I’m wondering today if we need a better metaphor than war for the experience we are navigating. The coronavirus is a natural phenomenon, not a malevolent one. If we continue to project aggressive “war” talk onto this experience, it will ultimately shrink our compassion for our shared humanity, even as it increases our bravado and bluster.

Here might be two metaphors that can help us navigate this moment of our collective experience, ones that expand us and offer new imagination:

  • Consider the farmers who find their crops and plants suddenly susceptible to a new insect or blight. As the days unfold the yield decreases; crops and plants need tending in careful ways, belts are tightened, and bellies are hungrier. But in the psyche of the farmer is the deep perennial wisdom that harvest always ebbs and flows; that there are good years and there are lean years. Our survival as a species has always teetered on the knife-edge between “more than enough” and “barely sufficient.” But the farmer knows what the rest of us forget. Nature is a self-regulating system that seems to have a mind of its own. The teachable farmer has learned what we have yet to discover. It’s not always all about us! And so, could leaders be more like a Farmer in Chief than a Commander in Chief?

  • When we look at history, we are hard-pressed not to acknowledge that earthquakes are destructive and inevitable. Their tremors and consequent assault are not personal. How could we conceive of our planet as our enemy? Yet when tectonic plates have shifted like a giant in whose bed we sleep, we have learned to build buildings differently; structures that are more flexible than rigid. One would assume that the way to construct a building so that it will endure the worst would be to reinforce everything with steel and concrete. As Michael Casey notes, “the secret of surviving earthquakes is to have a building which moves with the movement of the earth. Instead of solidly resisting the tremors, the building sways with them. When the moment is past it flows back into position undamaged.” Oh, that our leaders were more like an Architect in Chief than Commander in Chief.

It’s time for our imaginations to be captured with new metaphors for the challenges and invitations before us. Haven’t we outgrown the obsession with war and twisting everything into a contest of will and winning? What metaphors would you find helpful in leading you and those you love and care for through this present moment?

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