David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.
On the eve of her 107th birthday, I interviewed Clara Font at the adult day care center she visits every day. She was engaging, lucid, and funny. I sat down to talk with her after she had just finished her aerobic exercises with her physical therapist. She had been swinging her legs, and kicking an inflated ball. I was impressed.
Sitting face to face with Clara I asked, “Tomorrow you turn 107, what do you think?” Clara did not hesitate with her answer. She looked right at me, and said with a smile, “Life is a gift.”
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Positive Psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt wrote, “Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to the things we already know…once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking.”
Consider the power of Clara’s “life is a gift” metaphor. When we see life as a gift, we see that it is to be appreciated, unwrapped, shared, opened, cared for, and celebrated. A gift brings delight, opportunity, privilege, and a responsibility to use it thoughtfully.
Our metaphors help us make sense of the world. Metaphors allow us to understand something as complex as “life” by thinking of it in terms of something we already know like “a gift.” Clara’s “life is a gift” metaphor is all the more impressive to me, considering that her first forty years were marked with tragedy.
During the Russian pogroms, two of Clara’s brothers were ripped from their home and were never seen again. Clara spoke of her family and how they had to separate to survive. As a newlywed, she was forced to leave Russia with her husband. Their perilous journey to Romania began on foot and included swimming across a river. From Romania they traveled to Argentina where their two children were born. In 1939 Clara and her family relocated to the United States to be with her mother and younger sister who had made it safely to New York years earlier. Then one year after arriving in America, her husband died. And through it all, Clara believed that life was a gift.
Professors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote in their book Metaphors We Live By, “In all aspects of life…we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.”
Years ago you were “cool” if your metaphor for life was “Life’s a b@#!% and then you die.” People wore tee-shirts, hats, and put bumper stickers on their cars emblazoned with these words. I always wondered how this metaphor or any of its many variations helped anyone live a better life. It’s hard to imagine a centenarian like Clara blowing out her candles, and then shouting, “Life sucks!”
Before the end of my interview with Clara I asked, “Clara, what’s it like to be almost 107 years old?” She smiled broadly, and charmingly told me, “Everyone asks me that question.” She then leaned forward in her chair and said, “Every day is another opportunity.”
Think about your metaphors. Do they lead you to happiness? Do they inspire you to be a better friend, spouse, parent, or leader? Do they open up career possibilities for you? If your metaphors are not helping you achieve your best possible life, change them.
And if you’re not sure where to start, consider the metaphors, and wisdom of someone who recently turned 107 years old. Listen to Clara: “Life is a gift,” and “every day is an opportunity.”
Clara, your life is our gift. Happy Birthday!
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.