As we slide deeper into December, it grows closer to being dark when I get home from work, and it’s also colder this time of year. I feel more inclined to huddle in my apartment, bar the door, get under the blankets with a bottle of brandy, and wait for the monster that is eating the sun to go away.
Perhaps the increasing consumption of daylight by the darkness makes me more aware of metaphors of light and heat. I was also thinking about such metaphors because of a phrase I often hear. Every Sunday at the Unitarian church, someone lights a sort of lamp, and when it has taken fire, we say, “We light this chalice for the light of truth, the warmth of love, the energy of action, and the harmony of peace.” Other than the final phrase, which seems a bit out of place in that list of metaphors, we have references to light, warmth, and energy itself.
While I’m huddled under the blankets in my apartment, perhaps from the influence of the brandy, I think about how we try to use language to express things we struggle to understand. Things seem more real when they turn into language, as though the very act of finding words and putting them into sentences clarifies our thoughts. To give language to what is difficult to understand—this is why metaphors are so basic to using language.
I think I’ve previously discussed metaphors of light, which seems to represent almost every kind of good thing: holiness (Jesus is the light of the world), knowledge (enlightenment), safety (a light in the darkness), health (a healthy “glow”). Warmth is also a popular metaphor with positive emotional connotations, such as a warm heart or greeting someone warmly.
Light and heat of course are forms of energy, and with the third metaphor in that Unitarian ritual, energy seems to represent motion. If you have nothing better to do under your own blanket than read some physics, you can see that energy comes in still other forms, including electricity, kinetic energy, potential energy, and more. You can do your own Wikipedia search.
Years ago I began to wonder what energy is really, what this word actually refers to. I assumed my ignorance was merely my own lack of knowledge, and that if I read the right book or asked the right person, I’d find out.
I assumed wrong. In fact, no one knows, at least not in a way that would satisfy me. Here are four “definitions” of energy taken from four different websites, quoting them exactly as I found them: (1) Scientists define ENERGY as the ability to do work, (2) Energy Is the Ability to Do Work, (3) In physics, energy is the ability to do work… (4) Physicists…say that energy is the ability to do work.
You seeing a theme here? Every definition uses the same vague, semi-magical language. Whatever energy might be, it is nothing we can put our finger on, and our language indicates that lack of knowledge. Consider two examples of the inscrutability of energy:
- Electricity consists of the flow of electrons, electrons are part of an atom, and an atom is considered matter. How can electrons be both matter and energy?
- If you put a book on a table, it is said to have “potential energy”, which will be released if the book falls off the table. So is there something in the book that disappears after the book falls? What is it that was there?
About a week ago I was thinking about energy, because I just do that, and it occurred to me that the word “energy” itself, even when used alone, is actually a metaphor. Our observations of the world—light, heat, and so on, all of them in some ways mysterious—we sum up in the word “energy” and by doing this, we compare them to some kind of “substance”, or more fully to a “mysterious invisible substance”, as if energy is a thing.
The very word seems to make it a real thing. Whatever energy might be, we don’t know, yet we can sort of talk about it. To do so, however, we have to use metaphors, because it remains an enigma.
Maybe you’re not into this discussion, but as you can see, it leaves me fired up.