I’m always looking for metaphors and finding them in odd places, often despite myself.
I stumbled over this one while talking with Bowser, my Dharma buddy turned Buddhist monk. The two of us grew up in opposite ends of the San Joaquin Valley and played football against each other in high school. This metaphor arose when we were sharing our childhood memories of backwater black and white television and the cheesy, low budget B movies that stations back then used to fill their air time late at night or on weekend afternoons. There were cowboy movies, road racing movies, war movies of every stripe, truck driving movies, aliens from outer space, pirate movies, former serials—both science fiction and cowboy—horror films, and lots of the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals. And more.
You remember the lifeboat movies?” Bowser chuckled.
Bowser noticed right away. “You got that look again,” he said.
By then I was already deep in metaphor gear.
The lifeboat movies Bowser referred to featured a cast of seven or eight, whose boat had been sunk, adrift together on dangerous seas, and the drama that ensued between them as their characters came to the fore. Lifeboat movies were, of course, cheap to make. They used bit actors on a set rigged to look like a lifeboat and intercut their scenes with stock footage of waves at sea. The scripts were generic collisions of stereotypes trapped in situations where they couldn’t avoid each other, short on food and water and stripped to their emotional core by the desperation of their plight. Someone was always battling despair; someone else always wrestled with what passed for madness in that American era, shouting and throwing himself about as he “lost his head,” only to be “brought to his senses” by a hard blow to the jaw. Otherwise, most of the dialogue was relatively vapid soliloquies on their lives. At their inevitable rescue finale, almost all of them experienced some epiphany about themselves and how different they needed to be from then on.
Those televised low budget dramas sucked as cinema, but their artistry wasn’t what struck me when I was hanging with Bowser. It was metaphor—and the possibility of using “Lifeboat” to frame and evoke the situation in which our civilization now finds itself. After a day or so contemplating lifeboats, I came up with five significant similarities between the current us and my new metaphor:
We will soon be adrift in peril after our mother ship’s failure. The world we assumed for ourselves is disappearing as a consequence of our alteration of the atmosphere’s chemistry and the ensuing destabilization of climate patterns. We face deep deterioration in the world as we have known it and potentially massive attendant casualties. We must reinvent civilization in new, diminished circumstances with little but ourselves to count on. Lifeboats are used to survive dislocation and dislocation is about to become our daily experience, with civilization as we know it at stake.
We have nowhere else to go. Like lifeboat riders, we do not have the option of starting over or ignoring our situation. We are stuck in our lifeboat until we find some way to organize our rescue. That vessel is all that separates us from disaster. We need to accept confinement in it as part of the price of survival. The hostile sea in which we float dictates many of the terms we must live with and to which we must adjust.
We are in uncharted waters. Our circumstance is unprecedented in human history, making navigation problematic at best. No one before us has managed to disrupt the planet’s cycles to the point of threatening our species with what in the very worst case scenario looks like oblivion. Where that disruption will carry us is unknown. Like lifeboaters, we have to act without any sure means to verify our course or reassure ourselves of the outcome. Uncertainty prevails and the decisions we must make require us to calculate over the horizon.
We have only finite resources with which to sustain ourselves. Part of the disruption that brings us to our lifeboat is the shrinking of the communal capacity to maintain our traditional lifestyles and the endless growth they require. Shortages will multiply and the chemistry of our air will dictate how much we can use of what resources remain. Like lifeboaters dividing up their chocolate bars and rationing their water, we have to find new ways to get by in severely reduced circumstances and still stay strong enough to paddle.
All our fates are mutual. In a lifeboat, any single occupant can drown all the rest by shifting their weight to the wrong spot, and the physical demands of the lifeboat require the sum of everyone’s strength, applied in concert. Such interrelationship is a fundamental characteristic of the world that will soon be upon us. Any of us can tip the rest of us into the drink simply by not being mindful of all the others.
Metaphors, of course, bring with them an implied set of behaviors that must be adopted to actualize the metaphor. So too with “Lifeboat.” If we are in a Lifeboat, we have to behave like lifeboaters adrift on the sea, intent on optimizing our chances.
It took me another few days to identify a bunch of those behaviors. I call them the Lifeboat Rules:
Make more out of less;
Share what there is;
Take everyone into account;
Learn as much as possible about what’s going on;
Hold each other accountable;
Steer into the wind; and
Don’t take anything for granted.
When I’d finished my ruminations, I was excited about my new metaphor and all that it implied, so I stopped by to blurt it all out to Bowser.
Bowser wasn’t particularly moved, though he did chuckle.
“So,” he wondered out loud, “what makes you think bad movies make good metaphors?”