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A Sign of the Times

[Warning: this blog is a little difficult to process, but it is worth it!]

Right before we piled into the minivan to start our journey home, I thought I would visit the park facilities just to be safe. In this case, the facilities were a very nicely kept public restroom that nonetheless was little more than a fancy porta-potty.

As I washed my hands, a sign caught my attention. With a plea to common sense if not common decency, it implored: “PLEASE… DO NOT put trash in the toilets, it is extremely difficult to remove. THANK YOU”

On the surface (and in spite of some punctuation issues), this sign is nothing special; you understand immediately what the sign is saying and you recognize the force of the argument without having to think about it.

But stop and think about why you don’t have to think about it, and this clear and obvious sign can give us an insight into the way our culture operates without even thinking about it.

[Stay with me here: I think it’s worth the extra effort.]

A) DO NOT put trash in the toilets,
B) it is extremely difficult to remove.”

What is the logical connection between A) and B)? Why does B) count as an argument in favor of A)? What is the nature of the appeal?

I think our immediate and natural understanding of that public restroom sign hinges on several Conceptual Metaphors working together. Weird, right?

Don’t get me wrong–the language of the sign itself does not contain any metaphors: the trash is just trash; the toilets are just toilets; the literal removal of literal trash from literal toilets doesn’t point to some deeper meaning. Still, in order to understand the logic on which the sign depends, several Conceptual Metaphors common in our culture come into play. By noticing those Conceptual Metaphors, we can better understand why things make natural sense to us (and maybe even where our natural sense-making goes wrong at times).

You could describe the conceptual dynamics behind this porta-potty sign in more than one way, but it probably involves several aspects of the following.

In our culture, things that are important are naturally understood to be big, heavy, up, and expensive. We can label some of these obvious and natural inferences with language from Conceptual Metaphor Theory.

  • IMPORTANT IS BIG (that’s a huge opportunity)
  • IMPORTANT IS HEAVY (his opinion carried a lot of weight)
  • IMPORTANT IS UP (she was the top dog in her field)

The phrases in parentheses, above, are instances of language use that point to a connection in our conceptual system: we might all say, “That’s a huge opportunity!” without noticing the conceptual mapping going on behind the scenes, but we are nonetheless culturally trained to view things that are big, heavy, difficult, up, or expensive as more important than things that are small, light, easy, down, or cheap.

There are some logical chains built into our conceptual system. For example, things that are big tend to be heavy; things that are heavy tend to be difficult, big and heavy things are important, ergo difficult things are important. In German, the metaphorical chain has been lexicalized: schwer, by definition, can mean either “difficult” or “heavy” (or both).

So when the sign says trash is “extremely difficult to remove,” we immediately understand that this is very important, because difficult things are important! But that’s only part of what makes the appeal serious; the logic of the appeal actually hinges on another set of Conceptual Metaphors.

In our culture, TIME IS MONEY, with the result that more time is more valuable than less time. Because things that are DIFFICULT also take more time, DIFFICULT is not only IMPORTANT; DIFFICULT IS EXPENSIVE (there’s another logical chain: more difficult = more time = more expensive; difficult = expensive).

In our culture we value–in the fullest sense of the word, we pay more for–we value things that are difficult above things that are easy. That may seem obvious and natural, and there is a certain kind of experiential sense to that logic–if it takes three times as long it seems like it should cost three times as much money–but these natural connections are a kind of logical shorthand. Because they apply so often and so well, we apply them always, without thinking about it.

And that, my friends, is the point: we use logical shorthand embedded in our culture without thinking about it. That’s fine for exegeting bathroom signs, but not so much when it comes to exegeting Scripture or interpreting our lives of faith.

[Hang in there! The payoff is coming!]

“A) DO NOT put trash in the toilets,
B) it is extremely difficult to remove.”

A Sign of the Times

So what is the logic behind the sign? I think the whole thing hinges on our cultural understanding of economics, time, and difficulty:

A) DO NOT do something easy that takes almost no time and is therefore not important and not valuable (like putting trash in the toilets) BECAUSE

B) it is extremely difficult to remove, and therefore it takes time, it is expensive, and it is important.

You might imagine having to do something difficult like taking trash out of a toilet, and you might not do it because you are nice and empathetic and wouldn’t want someone else to have to do what you don’t want to do.

But the actual logic of the sign does not address your character or your empathy; the argument is an appeal not to human decency, but to economic free-market principles. You might be nice, but you might also be a jerk. Either way, the signs wants to point out that the economic value of A does not correlate with the economic value of B, and even if you are a jerk, surely an American jerk would understand the value of time, money, and difficulty and not do something so economically unbalanced as putting trash into a toilet where it takes time and money to get out! Where do you think we are? Communist China?

Based only on the logic of the sign, we could assume that if it were easy and took little time to take trash out of the toilet, it would be OK to put trash in there. (Or even, if it were really difficult and took a lot of time and effort to put trash in the toilet, it would be worth the time and expense to get it back out. Of course, that’s ridiculous in this case; but the logic of the sign actually hinges on a pattern of thinking that would technically allow that inference.)

[OK; here it comes: this is what makes this whole article worth the effort.]

So, who cares about a porta-potty sign? I don’t; and you shouldn’t either. BUT WAIT! Look at the logic that allows the sign to make sense, and you get an idea of some of the assumptions you walk around with every day. You even apply them uncritically to your life of faith. Now that matters!

So you and I naturally think something that takes time or is difficult is more valuable and more important.

  • How hard is it to say a short prayer before you put your kid or grandkid to bed? Pretty easy.
  • How much time does it take to read ten verses of Scripture in the morning and say the Lord’s Prayer? Not much.
  • How much effort or expertise does it take to speak a word of comfort or encouragement or forgiveness? Like, none.

Some of the most important, most foundational, most formative activities in our life of faith are easy, take little time or effort, and require no formal degree or training. Our culture demands that we devalue or even ignore these faith essentials: they are not worth our time or energy because they are not difficult or expensive. You don’t devalue the common, ordinary activities of faith on purpose; but you are naturally trained by your culture to think less of things that aren’t expensive or heroic.

As a good member of your culture, you would never put trash in the toilet, because it is so difficult (and therefore important and expensive) to remove. As a good member of your culture, you will likely ignore prayers at bed time, a few verses of Scripture with your coffee, and ordinary, everyday forgiveness. If you want to value those ordinary parts of your common life of faith you will have to consciously fight against the way you have been hard-wired to think.

That’s not always easy; but it is important.

Even when it is easy, it’s still important.

Don’t give up on the simple and the easy and the common, ordinary, daily expressions of faith. They are just as essential, and perhaps even more important, than the breakthrough, conversion, mountain top experiences. 

Jesus is part of your ordinary, every day life. And that is the most important thing of all.

[There! I told you! This blog was DIFFICULT and took time but that means it was IMPORTANT and VALUABLE so that reading to the end was WORTH the effort. Even your evaluation of this blog has been shaped by the metaphors you are reading about, while you are reading about them, and you might not even have noticed!]

Featured image by Julien Delaunay on Unsplash

About Justin Rossow

Justin writes and talks at the intersection of Scripture, culture, and metaphor theory. As founder of Next Step Press, he helps people delight in taking a next step following Jesus.

One comment on “A Sign of the Times

  1. Fascinating – and to think I was headed immediately to “the tragedy of the commons;” i.e., what is everyone’s responsibility ends up being no one’s responsibility. PLEASE take your responsibility as a member of the human family seriously, and don’t put trash in the toilet. And likewise all those “little easy things” that we are called to do? When we all (or at least most of us) do them, it makes a BIG IMPORTANT difference.

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