Can singing mend a broken heart?
With Valentine’s Day coming up, I’ve been thinking more about romantic love in our culture.  Have you ever ‘cried a river over’ that special someone who broke up with you? Ever ‘long for yesterday or seek a place to hide away’? Maybe, like ‘everybody’, you just ‘need somebody to love’ ?

We get so many of our metaphors for love from love songs—and often they focus on the pain of unrequited or lost love. Writing or listening to songs about such pain may be cathartic, a step in the healing process, but have you considered the collateral damage: our own optimism and expectations about love?

I came across a quote from High Fidelity by Nick Hornby recently that put a new spin for me on the power of our metaphors. “People worry about kids playing with guns and teenagers watching violent video games; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”

And it’s not just kids; we all listen to these songs. They flood the radio stations. The best singers croon them. They are poignant, often beautiful , and we can all relate. But is it the air we want to breathe? With music pumping through our radios and earphones daily, what’s meant to be a step in a healing process has become the environment we live in.

Why is it that we ‘fall’ in love? That sounds like it hurts! Why are we ‘love-sick’?  Even our metaphors about the ‘blind’ first stage of love sound dire! It only gets worse as hearts break, they get holes in them, and we’re told we can’t live with the pain and that ‘you’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.’

So, if we don’t want to encourage a culture of equating lost love or having no romantic partner with utter devastation, what kind of attitudes might we foster instead?

There are, of course, many songs about how wonderful love is. And some empowering songs about not wallowing in lost love’s misery, the sort that promote a “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair” or “I will survive” attitude; they offer messages about resilience.

We can be careful about what we tell our children and, especially our teenagers, as they begin to wade into the waters of romantic love. Yes, rejection hurts, but after some period of grieving, it’s good to take stock of what you’ve learned about yourself, about relationships, about what’s a good fit for you, and move on. And they need to hear that you’re not defined by your love status nor is your life in limbo when you’re not paired up.

Can we celebrate friendship as well as lovers?  Is there a saint for friends? A special friends day?? Perhaps this Valentine’s Day season, we just need to be more conscious of balancing the messages we take to heart, and be sure we’re ‘looking for love in all the right places’: all around us.

Close as can be
With the U.S. military’s Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the news, we read again of the toll on individual gay men and women harmed by intolerant attitudes. There’s a sort of irony to the situation, as one often hears vets talk about the close relationships between soldiers in combat. In the heat of battle, they risk their lives, not for their country, but for each other. Surely, that’s a love of sorts. So, just how loving can loving be and still be acceptable?

Figuring out the cultural parameters starts at an early age. Little girls and boys establish close same-sex friendships, and hug each other and hold hands. But that changes pretty quickly for the boys. My own experience teaching third graders in the 1990’s showed me that. These eight year old boys didn’t really know what being a homosexual meant, but they knew to call a boy ‘a girl’ or call him ‘gay’ was a clever jab. They wouldn’t have been caught dead holding hands, and a lack of interest in playing roughhouse sports was somewhat suspect. Interestingly, they didn’t tease when a classmate cried, if the cause seemed reasonable. But it was clear they were refining…and narrowing… their ideas of what manly behavior was. They were determining what feelings they would allow themselves to acknowledge (even to themselves), and how they could express them without begin ridiculed by the other boys.

Is it any wonder that women often complain men don’t have the relationship skills needed for true intimacy? Men squelch the opportunities to develop the skills even before the onset of puberty! Ultimately, we all pay a price for our culture’s homophobia, gay men, straight men and the women in their lives, when males of any age fear being perceived as homosexual and restrict themselves from truly connecting with other males.

But I think change is in the air, evident in the increasing popular use of the term bromance, which refers to a close, non-sexual relationship between two or more men. It’s the male version of what the four women characters in TV’s Sex and the City portrayed—very close, clearly heterosexual friendships. They were unashamedly as important to one another as their dating/marriage partners. For male examples, think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Ben Affleck and Matt Damon; Ross, Joey and Chandler of Friends; Jaime Dimon and Barack Obama (oh, but the mags say this last one is over!) The term bromance is mainstream now, increasingly the topic of TV series, movies and magazine speculations. It seems it’s becoming acceptable for men to describe their relationships as being more than between friends who hang out and ‘do stuff’ together. It’s not that these relationships haven’t always existed for some men; it’s that they’re being labeled, celebrated and, thus, encouraged.

It’s an interesting term, bromance, with deliberate manly connotations. Coined by editor Dave Carnie in the 1990s to describe the relationships between skateboarders who’d bonded over their boards, the term’s prefix bro- conjures images of the uber-male, the last one might suspect of being gay, the first one might suspect of being homophobic. Among friends, the term is used teasingly; it’s not meant to be demeaning or offensive. And hidden beneath the laughter is the acknowledgment that these men are best friends who truly love each other.

As homosexuality becomes increasingly accepted and there is less fear of being perceived as gay, men are more open to deepening their friendships with other men and publically acknowledging their feelings. As men are getting married later and the strained economy encourages sharing living quarters, men are nurturing these relationships later into their adults lives.

We all can benefit from bromances. The world is a better place when more of the people in it have all kinds of love in their lives and build the skills to nurture caring relationships. And the day may come again when we don’t have to describe such feelings using a slightly joking term, just in case someone mistakes our meaning.

Yes, bromance is in the air. Now if the U.S. Senate would just catch up with the TV networks and People magazine!

For a super-short history of the rise of the fear of feminism in the 20th century and more, read Jonathan Zimmerman’s article, “Homophobia doesn’t just hurt gays” 

For a description and background on the term: bromance

Check out this comedic YouTube to get a feel for the combination of teasing and closeness the term bromance suggests to teenagers.

If you don’t believe the term bromance is prevalent, try Googling “bromance, politician” or “bromance, actor”!

Time off to play and rest
I always knew our agricultural needs influenced our school calendars, with their long breaks to allow children to help on the family farm. What I’d never considered was the influence of the metaphor associated with the North American growth cycle, and how it explains why the tradition of a long summer vacation is still with us in the U.S. long after the family farm is mostly a thing of the past.

I’ve been reading Micheal Gladwell’s Outliers. In Chapter Nine, Gladwell briefly relays the history of the development of the public education system in America. Early on, basic literacy was considered essential, as informed citizens are necessary for a democracy to thrive. But what, exactly, should educating our children entail? Gladwell cites a number of sources that indicate nineteenth century educators were considering not just economic concerns, but that too much study could lead to an over-stimulated mind and mental disorders. Saturday classes were cut, and long school days and short vacations were adjusted to give students more rest.

Gladwell concludes that the metaphor being applied was that “effort must be balanced by rest”—just as fields rest in winter, and may need to lie fallow for a season to recoup. “We formulate new ideas by analogy, working from what we know toward what we don’t know, and what reformers knew were the rhythms of the agricultural seasons.” (p.254) Gladwell draws a contrast to the parts of Asia dominated by rice paddy agriculture and its rhythms. Planting two or three crops a year, rice farmers had no prolonged periods of rest. Nutrient-rich water used for irrigation enriches the soil, so the more it is cultivated, the better for the soil—unlike wheat or cotton crops. There developed, then, no guiding metaphor that suggests rest is good for the growing mind—and Japanese children, for example, go to school 243 days per year compared with 180 days for American children!

What Gladwell gives us is an example of the way metaphors can structure our thinking. A growing child is like a cultivated field, we think. Sic, what we know about cultivating crops can be applied to children. Utterly subconsciously, we can come to such conclusions, and they can limit our ideas about what might be possible or undermine our willingness to be open to new ways of doing things.

It’s precisely this sort of metaphorical sub-structure that can emerge with a Symbolic Modeling session. When I think about “effort must be balanced by rest”, I notice the implied metaphor in the word “balanced”. It’s a word that comes up frequently in client sessions, usually as something the client wants more of. My clients are far more likely to have an underlying belief that they are allowed to rest only when sick or completely exhausted than to think they rest too much. So, who is doing the allowing to rest, or not allowing, as the case may be? “Ah, interesting question,” the client usually replies. And then we are off, hunting for the guiding metaphor!

Can she be tough and feminine too?
If you’re interested in metaphors and how powerfully they can affect not only our everyday lives and personal selves but our country and culture, you’ll be intrigued by Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post- 9/11 America (2007).  Faludi has meticulously researched the US and, in particular, the media’s response to the terrorist attacks in the days and months that followed. What is astounding…and frightening… is how ardently and ruthlessly the powers-that-be sought to promote and protect their comforting metaphors/myths of male heroes of the day, exaggerating both their potential and actual effectiveness, and marginalizing the efforts of women, both those that helped that day and those that raised uncomfortable questions afterwards.

What I found even more intriguing was Faludi’s theory as to why these deliberate misrepresentations were perpetrated—consciously or subconsciously. She looks at several hundred years of US history when traumatizing Indian attacks on the homesteads of early settlers repeatedly found the men unwilling or unable to protect themselves and their families. Faludi concludes that the myth of the American hero, tough and resourceful, saving the weaker women and children, evolved as a way to assuage the hurting male egos.  Faludi backs up her theory with plenty of historical facts and examples that make for a fascinating read.

Included in the book is Faludi’s description of solider Jessica Lunch’s ordeal in Iraq in 2003. A dramatic rescue that was plastered all over the media for weeks turns out to have been basically a staged event. I was reminded of the story recently when America was horrified by yet another mass murder, this time in Fort Hood, Texas, where Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people. He was shot by Sgt. Kimberly Munley, a civilian police officer, in a gun battle during which she was shot three times.

I happened to be watching the news coverage on MSNBC. Two female reporters gushed over the heroism of Officer Munley. How astounding that a small woman should stop this killing rampage (as if being short and small is a disadvantage when you’re dodging bullets; you might think it would be an advantage not to be a large target!) Nevertheless, their honoring of her heroism seemed genuine. But it was a final comment that got my attention, and called to mind Faludi’s theory. Noting that Officer Munley is the mother of two young children, the reporter added, “As fine a cop as she is—she’s an even better mother!”  She offered no information to support this claim beyond the fact that Munley has children.

Now, here’s a civilian police officer, a former solider trained in ‘active shooter scenarios’, a  firearms instructor, and a special response team member whose quick and aggressive response is credited with saving a significant number of lives (based on the amount of ammunition found on the suspect)—and this reporter emphasizes her mothering abilities?!  I certainly don’t mean to downplay Officer Munley’s courage, skill or heroism, but then, this is what she is trained to do. While I respect all officers for their willingness to put their lives on the line, I would expect no less of a fine and dedicated officer. That she is a woman and mother has nothing to do with it.

All this made me curious: was the MSNBC reporter’s  response typical of  the media’s, similar in ways to what Faludi describes post 9/11? This time the media was not minimizing Munley’s role in stopping the rampage. If anything she was a media darling, her picture appearing repeatedly, the story on every newspaper’s home/front page. But was it common of the media to maintain a slant to the story that emphasized Munley’s exemplary motherhood? I did a brief and informal survey on the Internet, and while I did, indeed, find numerous headlines or first sentences of articles that read something along the lines of “policewoman and mother Kim Munley…”, overall I did not find an overemphasis on Munley’s sex, parental status or stature or which had a patronizing tone.

Unlike in Faludi’s description of the media’s response to 9/11 or to Jessica Lynch, the media this time did not minimize this female’s officer’s role in incident. If anything, they seized on the opportunity as ‘great copy’. In fact, I feel for Munley’s partner, Sgt. Mark Todd, who responded to the scene with her. In some articles, no mention at all is made of him; in others he is simply identified as “her partner”.  Perhaps because he wasn’t shot, he was overlooked. Or maybe it was because he isn’t a 5”2” and 120 pound mother.

So, I’m left with the question: are the times a changin’? Is America rewriting its metaphors of the female ideal–or at least broadening its parameters?  Eight years ago, the media airbrushed the female firefighters, EMTs, etc. out of the 9/11 rescue efforts. Six years ago, Pvt. Jessica Lynch became the Army’s poster child for the weak female needing to be rescued. Today, Sgt. Munley is hailed as a brave heroine, but there still seems to be a compelling need to assure ourselves that this female icon is both a solider and a mother.

If you notice other examples of current media mythology about women in the news, please share it with us.  Meanwhile, here are some links you may find interesting if you want to read more.

Here’s an article which can give you the flavor of  Faludi’s book.

An article by a BBC reporter gives you an idea of how Jessica Lynch’s rescue was staged.

A crime problem or a health problem?
Metaphors matter because they frame the way we think about an issue–and the solutions we consider. I’ve been noticing recently that the Obama administration knows this too. (Guess they’ve read George Lakoff’s Don’t think of an Elephant!(2004).) A few weeks ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the administration would no longer be using the term “War on Terror.”  This was followed by an announcement by Gil Kerlikowske, the drug czar, that the administration will no longer refer to seeking solutions for the drug problems in this country as a “War on Drugs.”

When we started referring to addressing the drug problem in this country as a war,  we started thinking in terms of  military/police solutions.  Drug users became the enemy, and it was only logical to construe treating their health problems with compassion as being ‘soft on crime.’ Changing this approach when our attack wasn’t succeeding would have been tantamount to surrendering–which no politician wants to do.

I think our war metaphor  had an even subtler, more insidious effect. When we started using battle metaphors,  we started thinking terms of winners and losers.  And pretty soon there was an us vs. them mentality that became so intrinsic a part of our culture that we forgot that us and them are one and the same.

“We’re not at war with people in this country,” said  Kerlikowske.

Hallelujah!  Maybe now we have an administration that is really ready to reframe drug use–this time as a health issue. And, thinking of Clinton’s quote,  that is ready to rethink its approach to healing (rather than combating) the root causes of the anger that fuels people’s resorting to terrorism.

Wonder what new metaphors the administration will come up with?  Keep us posted if you spot any.