Like the air being let out of a balloon!
Like souring the milk!
Like staring at yourself in a reflection in a frozen pond – but on a time delay!
Star Trek was infamous for using analogies to explain awkward technobabble in layman’s terms. Perhaps Riker largely existed to be the hapless one asking “huh?” when Data starting using Science. (Also, he existed to bring his strong beard game, of course.)
Riker, and by extension, us, would be out to sea without these helpful analogies, boiling down a complex discovery into one delightfully digestible, actionable phrase. Make it so and roll credits!
Perhaps the best illustration of the power of analogy in Trek is “Darmok,” the Next Generation episode in which Picard must learn to communicate with a captain whose culture expresses itself entirely in metaphors. Without a common culture to serve as context for what he says, Picard has no idea where to start. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”? “Darmok and Jalad on the ocean”?! Thankfully Picard and the other captain, Dathon, end up sharing experiences with each other, building a common framework, and ultimately coming to an understanding. Like Picard and Dathon, Darmok and Jalad are two characters brought together through a mutual challenge.
To this day the words “Darmok and Jalad” bring a warm feeling to the heart of Trekkies because we remember how Dathon dies to teach Picard this lesson. And on a more meta level, we Trekkies were brought together by experiencing them experiencing the lesson.
That episode is more relevant today than it was when it aired–after all, what are the gifs we share but our own metaphors crafted from our own mutual stories? When I see the “sad Doctor in the rain” gif, I know completely what the poster is trying to say. “Oh, that silly, melodramatic David Tennant! How we love him.” I connect with the poster, even if they are a stranger, because we both have that shared experience. Wry dinosaur, Kermit sipping tea, and thousands of fandom gifs are our new, Darmok-like language.
That is, unless you don’t know them. Seeing a gif you don’t know is jarring – suddenly, you are a part of the other. And our society has so many problems right now with “the other.” And I don’t just mean those Trekkies who actually like the new rebooted movies (there’s no accounting for taste, you know.)
Red staters and blue staters, city dwellers and small town people, immigrants and those who have been here awhile–the gulfs between our cultures now are vast, created in part by the very social media that brings some of us together. Our echo chambers are pretty exclusive. We don’t even share the same news, let alone the same stories. The media we watch and read is picked out of a seemingly infinite list on our streaming devices, so odds of watching the same thing as our neighbors aren’t high.
Our common language might usually be English, but we are clueless when it comes to our Darmoks and our Jalads.
But as the captain in Darmok could tell you, stories are absolutely crucial-whether in short form as analogies or as long tomes. The stories we take in are how we understand the world. They are our common foundation. What makes us cry? What makes us laugh? What motivates us? Understanding, as Captain Dathon could tell you, comes from shared experience–and I believe that experience doesn’t necessarily have to be literal.
Experience can come from a book, a show, a YouTube video. When you care very much about a story, when it has meaning for you, I’d say it’s a fandom. And when it creeps into your beliefs, it becomes a philosophy – or even a religion.
As we build towards our future, I hope we can consider which philosophies and fandoms we might share. Could stories of any of the religions steeped in thousands of years of history?
My Christianity – or as one might call it, my Jesus fandom – has ebbed and flowed a lot throughout my life as I learn and grow. Lately much more of an ebb. But however you consider it, at its heart, it’s about story. Jesus told parables as his way of teaching his lessons. And his own life has become like those parables, each verse a story we tell each other over the years, potentially with insight. To me, the actual historical accuracy doesn’t matter all that much, just like the parable of the sower doesn’t need the literal sower’s life details to be understood.
Can those common parables that Jesus told, that Jesus lived, still bring us together? Maybe the popular fandoms of the day can also serve that role, to some extent? Is Star Wars the story that brings us together today – the morals of the Jedi, the spirit of the Rebellion? Is that why “The Last Jedi” was so controversial, because it deconstructs so many elements of that story?
Do superhero movies unite us, as we all rally around Wonder Woman’s feminist spirit or wrestle with the “can I save them/will I save them/what does it all mean” questions of the Avengers?
Personally, I find the philosophy of Doctor Who the most illuminating. Beyond “never be cruel, never be cowardly,” listen to Matt Smith’s Doctor and “do what I do. Hang tight and pretend it’s a plan!”
Even yoga class is a story in its way with a beginning of centering, a middle of stretching, and an end of meditation. Say savasana and I will understand your rest, your relief. Say crow pose and I’ll understand a noble struggle (will I EVER get that pose?). And we all certainly share in the common experience of honoring each other with “Namaste.”
In any case, we all would all do well to listen to the Witch in the musical Into the Woods when she says “careful the tale you tell, that is the spell. Children will listen.” Our analogies we tell our techno-illiterate coworkers, the gifs we share on our platforms, the stories we tell and show our children: they form our world. Let’s listen to Dathon and try to share that world as much as possible.