Perhaps the most bedazzling facet of the 11 Core Competencies is the use of metaphor in direct communication. On one hand, we’ve all experienced that Rosetta Stone flash of insight sparked by metaphorical substitutions of apples for oranges. Still, who among us hasn’t found themselves careening down rhinestone cul-de-sacs after less fruitful comparisons? For a deeper appreciation of metaphors, we might consider why specific examples work, along with how they compare with their allusory alternatives.
"I can imagine my life as a corridor lined with doors on either side. Some doors open to good things; others I need to close and move on".
Here’s a sample of reasons why the metaphor of closing a door to describe "closure" is so appealing:
Experience: Closing a door is a simple, familiar skill. Imagine using this metaphor in a conversation with a 17th century Inuit grandmother – how far would you reasonably expect to get?
Ubiquity: This metaphor is so ingrained culturally that it, in turn, spawns other metaphors. Consider the “closing the door” inference in the following from a woman who lost a relative in the Oklahoma City bombing: "There is no such thing as closure for people who lost family in the bombing. The only closure is when they close the lid on my casket.1 ”
Beliefs: We confabulate close bonds between words according to how they sound. In Why Susie Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore2 , psychologist Brett Pelham examines our inordinately high tendency to forge associations of this type in key areas of our lives: the work we do, partners we seek, and places we live. The number of dentists named Dennis, couples named John and Jane, and men named Louis living in St. Louis are disproportionately high. “Closure” and “closing a door”: it’s hard not to believe they’re related.
Viscosity: Metaphors, like stereotypes and characterizations, draw power from their ambiguity and malleability of meaning. When we talk of closing the door, what exactly is the door? Our emotions? Another person’s actions? A sequence of events? The slippery nature of metaphor can leave us with the impression of meaningful engagement at the very moment we don blinders and stumble out into the night.
What about alternative metaphors? Consider how closure works within the metaphor of Life as a Book: closing doors give way to turning pages and starting new chapters. Or Gestalt Therapy’s Law of Closure 3, where closure is a function of our skill to complete inferred patterns by filling in blanks. How easy is it not to see a circle and a square in the following image?
Where would Life as a Circle be without closure? Presented in the guise of the seasons, aging, biorhythms, or just straight out two-dimensional geometry, adversity is inescapable in this mother of all life metaphors. The real power of the circle as metaphor resides in linking the final moment to the first. No closure: no circle.
Then there’s Life as an Axis of Polarities. Think of a teeter-totter with Dick Cheney on one end; the Dalai Lama on the other. As Dick goes up, so too does our need for certainty. As the Dalai Lama ascends, so does our ability to embrace ambiguity. According to the Need for Closure Scale4, each of us has our own variation on this scenario playing within. Uncertainty causes Dick to rise up, while compassion and curiosity buoy the Dalai Lama. Ironically, studies indicate that Dick is least likely to be bothered by the need for closure. The first rationale he encounters – “Pure Evil”, for example – does the trick. In contrast, the Dalai Lama is more concerned with looking at dilemmas from as many sides as possible, lessening his chances for a quick conclusion.One possible appreciation to be gained through considering the workings of metaphor comes in perceiving interconnectivities between people, actions, and all those other things we tend to label off into separate silos. “Closures and openings”, our pigeonholing habit insists, “are completely different things.” But is this necessarily so? Rather than focusing on the product of a particular set of actions – “this is the end; this, the beginning” – we can keep our eye on the bigger processes of which they are a part and with which they intersect. Beginnings have roots, and endings seed. Kind of like the chicken and the egg - but that’s a horse of a different feather.