If you go to an art gallery or read a book or pop along to the cinema or something, you’ll find that if there’s one thing humans can’t stop doing it’s deploying symbolism and metaphor. Hooboy, we deploy those bad boys all over the place. The egg as a symbol of fertility. The shower as a symbol of renewal - although of course water can also represent death. Or sex. Or freedom. All this can be quite confusing. People have PhDs in this stuff for a reason.
Generally speaking though, things tend to represent death, birth, sex, the downfall of humanity, or freedom from the downfall of humanity. We’re simple folk.
Now, in every day life, symbolism doesn’t come in handy nearly so much as you think it might when you’re studying cinema at university. We don’t tend to look at a body of water and think “oh goodness, I might die in this next scene. Or maybe something sexy will happen. Or I’ll be reborn. Goodness how confusing”. Symbols and metaphors are there, though, if you look for them, and it can come in handy if you know how it works. Here, then, is a handy guide to embracing the useful symbols and metaphors around you. This is a Public Service Announcement.
Sunrise. Maybe you never see it. Maybe those dreadful morning people tell you you’re “missing the best part of the day” before they fall asleep, fully-clothed, face-first on their beds at 6pm just as your day is getting started. Maybe you are a dreadful morning person, and you never miss what is, let’s all say it together, the best part of the day. The mist rising off soft orange hills. The silence. The gradual awakening of the birds. As symbolism for a new start it doesn’t get much better than this.
Fire. Sitting in front of a fire, watching the flames curl and flicker, feeling the warmth of it - it’s good for you somehow, on a cellular level that a scientist somewhere might be able to explain. Something happens to your mind when you watch fire. It slows down, becomes able to focus and drift at the same time. Fire is, in art, a symbol of creativity. Sitting in front of a fire, watching it, mind moving with the flames, you can see why. Free your mind. Sit by a fire.
A made bed. Fresh sheets. Usually this is a metaphor for order. Normally it’s at the start of the film before the protagonist’s entire life unravels but don’t let that deter you. If things go awry, just make the bed again.
Reflections are lovely. Reflections warped and translucent in a glass window. Wobbly reflections in a lake, the colours bleeding into each other, constantly moving, reimagined into a slightly different form. Reflections are a symbol of all kinds of things in art and cinema, but mostly they’re a reminder that things aren’t as permanent or solid as we sometimes think they are. They are, though, when you wobble the focus a bit, pretty gorgeous really.
A blank page. Working on something that feels stuck? Distracted by the Internet? Overwhelmed by life? Find a blank page and a pen. See, now you’re in charge of the narrative. Metaphorically, you’re basically God. Make yourself God. Clear a space on your desk.
A swim. Dip into some water and re-emerge into the universe. You’ve undergone a rebirth and a cleansing, and (our old favourite) a renewal. All without needing a midwife.
Birds flying through the air are usually symbolic of freedom. Look up. See if you can spot a bird hurtling through the atmosphere. It’s funny how it can, sometimes, make you feel a bit free.
You know the phrase “walk it off”? That’s a phrase born and bred knee-deep in metaphor and symbolism. If ever you’re feeling that life is too full of problems with not nearly enough solutions, and the problems are so uniquely your problems that you might indeed be the problem, find some comfortable pants, some walking shoes, and ”walk it off”. Sometimes, in cinema, walking for long distances can be seen as a symbol of running from your problems. Sometimes it can be seen as progress or “a journey”. Either way, it’s good exercise and you might see a sunrise or a reflection or someone going for a swim.
Symbolism and metaphor is all around you. Make the most of it. This has been a Public Service Announcement.
These columns appear first in The Big Issue, which you should buy whenever you see a vendor, because it will change their day.