Anyone who has spent much time with me knows that I love to use metaphors and similes to explain things. My usual preference is food-related: “We need to layer up the topics in the first part of this paper like a parfait, then blend them into a creamy mousse at the finish.” Clarifying, and fun to think about at the same time, right?
Recently, I learned about a book on the topic of metaphor, “I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World” by James Geary. Geary writes that metaphors are found in many aspects of daily life, beginning with a toddler’s early play, when a paint stirring stick can be used as a comb. (This is something I sadly learned when my little daughter arose from her nap before I could clean up my home improvement project.)
Geary wrote: “Metaphorical thinking, our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other, shapes our view of the world and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover and invent. … Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.”
A while back, I was struggling to conceptualize and explain what I wanted to develop in a private practice. Everyone from my friends to my accountant kept asking me what I would actually be doing. At the same time, I was teaching Introduction to OT classes and trying to explain our complex profession to eager occupational therapy students. As we all appreciate, explaining occupational therapy in a succinct-yet-complete way can cause one to break a sweat. After more than 35 years of dealing with this challenge, it struck me: Occupational therapy is the Swiss army knife of healthcare professions!
I started using this analogy with anyone who wanted to know what occupational therapy is but does not want to spend an entire semester hearing about it. It seems to have merit. A few weeks ago, I sent out a brief query on the Today in OT Facebook page, asking readers to weigh in on this analogy. I was tickled at the volume and content of the comments it generated. Almost all the comments were positive and enthusiastic, but some found the metaphor too limited. They offered their own favorite comparisons, such as to resourceful television character Angus MacGyver or simply a cache of knowledge.
I still like my Swiss army knife metaphor. To me, it depicts versatility and client-centeredness. It’s not so much about what I do, but about what you may need and that I can provide it. Of course, sometimes a client really needs a chainsaw or a cement mixer, in which case I must refer him or her to a more appropriate resource.
In any case, the Swiss army knife question generated some thought and lively conversation, which is the best possible outcome. The community of therapists who read Today in OT is a lively, thoughtful, and passionate group and I am pleased to know and be counted among you.
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