Don’t ride an emotional roller-coaster.

– Esther Eberstadt Brooke, You and Your Personality: A Guide to Effective Living (1949)

There is no option to get off a roller coaster before the ride is over. So a decision not to ride has to be made in advance. Brooke urges readers to stay on an “even keel” – apparently unaware that even ocean liners must climb and plunge with every wave in a storm.

On an emotional roller coaster, the feel-good part comes first, then the steep fall. On a real roller coaster, the thrill of not having died afterall comes at the end. The beginning is when, during the slow-cranking period of ascent, you experience dread and regret and ask: “How did I let myself get talked into this?” Thus, the real roller coaster brings complexities of human psychology to light: our thirst for intense experience, the way we use extraordinary experiences (e.g., initiation rites) to bond with others, or set ourselves apart. The metaphorical roller coaster seems never to mean anything more than going up and down compulsively – like a yo-yo, as Allan Sherman observed in  A Gift of Laughter(1965).

Stoics have said for centuries we should avoid extremes, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that medicine recognized the causal link between emotional highs and lows: what goes up must come down. In 1854, Jules Baillarger identified a mental illness he called “folie à double” (a madness in two parts), which we now call bipolar disorder. Independently, in the same year, Jean-Pierre Falret proposed a similar new diagnosis, “folie circulaire.”

Photo: Canobielakepark at English Wikipedia


Headache roameth in the desert, blowing like the wind / Flashing like lightning…

– Babylonian tablet, circa 700 BC

In Babylon, and throughout human history, people have pictured evil spirits as the cause of headaches. Even today, a lot of headache imagery supposes an external agent inflicting pain – often with tools from the carpenter’s shop:

A giant wields a rusty saw. He gloats and hums as he works, slicing through my forehead and into the mind behind it. – E. Lockhart, We Were Liars (2014)

His headache was still sitting over his right eye as if it had been nailed there. – Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955)

When the tools are not piercing or cutting, they may be squeezing or pounding:

…it is sometimes said that the “top of the head appears to open and shut,” or that someone seems to be “holding the head in a vise,” or “pushing a screw into the top of the head,” or that the head feels “as if it were swollen,” or “bursting.” – Harry Campbell, Headache and Other Morbid Cephalic Sensations (1894)

The pain is generally referred to the top of the head, and is frequently described as resembling a “ticking,” or the beating of a small hammer on the skull. – Henry Goode Wright, Headaches (1867)

The opposite of the “head in a vise” headache might be the “splitting headache,” an expression that is sometimes connected playfully to the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus. In one version of the story, Zeus asks Hephaestus to crack open his forehead with an ax to relieve his Olympian headache. Novelist Mortimer Collins uses the expression less loftily in Sweet Anne Page (1868),describing a hangover:

…he awoke with a headache – a splitting headache, that seemed capable of splitting a tough planet into infinitesimal fragments.

A throbbing headache, though it keeps time with the body’s own pulse, may evoke hammering, splitting, or shattering. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet says: “Lord, how my head aches!…It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces” (II.5.48-49).

When a headache is very bad, the sufferer may think of surrendering his or her head altogether. In Egyptian mythology, Horus prays for his head to be taken off and exchanged with a new one. In her 1992 memoir Woolgathering, Patti Smith recalls a pounding headache that “got into that crazy realm where the guillotine seems like a good idea.”

Rarely, headache imagery is animal rather than mechanical, and native to the mind rather than imposed by a torturer. In Erika Swyler’s “The Mermaid Girl: A Story” (2016), headache is a disturbance in the landscape inside one’s head:

Headaches were like birds. Starlings. They could be perfectly calm, then a single acorn could drop and send the entire flock to the sky.

In Excedrin commercials from the 1960s, a crusty old man compared his headaches to “two bull goats” ramming each other. He put the knuckles of his two fists together to illustrate.

Babylonian tablet translation by R. Campbell Thompson (1903), quoted in Mervyn J. Eadie, Headache through the Centuries (NY : Oxford, 2012).
Horus story from Papyrus Leiden I 348, cited in Karenberg and Leitz, “Headache in magical and medical papyri of Ancient Egypt.”, Quotes about Headache

Photo: H. Daumier (1833); Wellcome Library/Wikimedia

Love shakes my heart like a wind sweeping down a mountain onto oaks.

– Sappho, fragment 47 (translated by Suzy Q. Groden)


It is surprisingly difficult to say what desire feels like. Sappho describes its invisible force in terms of another invisible force, a strong wind that races down a mountainside, accumulating power, thrashing limbs of the sturdiest of trees. The metaphor externalizes desire, making it a visual to be observed at a distance. But it also calls upon memory, encouraging you to recall a time when you stood on the flank of a mountain, holding onto your hat. You might think also of your first love and realize the mountain is your body and the limbs of the trees are your trembling arms and legs.

Songwriters typically compare the physical sensation of desire to a fire. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (1960, covered by The Guess Who in 1965) evoke the feeling with an itemized list of quaking bones.

Quivers down my back bone

I’ve got the shakes down the kneebone

Yeah havin’ the tremors in the thighbone

Shakin’ all over

For another “wind in the trees” metaphor, use the Search box to find “Like the moon needs poetry.” See also “kite dancing in a hurricane.”

Painting: Detail from Storm in the Mountains (circa 1870) by Albert Bierstadt; Museum of Fine Arts Boston (

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No man is an island.

You’d never say such a thing unless you felt, at times, like an island. So the purpose of a metaphor may be to contradict a lurking belief, and its method may be a provocative overstatement, as when John Donne says:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624)

Doubtless you could name one or two clods without whom Europe would not be diminished by much. But the principle behind Donne’s metaphor – that every individual life is valuable, and has meaning – has profound consequences for the way we live as a society. It is the reason why the military will risk ten aircraft to recover a downed pilot. It is the reason why cities pour tons of concrete to make buildings accessible to the disabled. It is the reason why some protesters blockade abortion clinics and others block highways, shouting “Black Lives Matter.”

On their Crown of Creation album (1968), Jefferson Airplane wisecracked:

No man is an island. He’s a peninsula.

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Kiss from a rose

Though Guns N’ Roses got their name from two precursor bands – L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose – everyone knows guns are phallic symbols and roses are yonic symbols. In mythology, the rose was sacred to Aphrodite and Venus. Later, the white rose became a symbol for the Virgin Mary. The metaphor was both anatomical and spiritual, and its sexual-ethereal duality is reaffirmed each year by myriad delivery vans on Valentine’s Day.

One of the most popular books of the Middle Ages was Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), an allegory of the do’s and don’ts of courtly love. A hopeful lover finds the Rose in a garden, guarded by Chastity. The lover tries to win a kiss from the Rose, but she has multiple identities. Sometimes the Rose is a woman, sometimes the Rose is the emotion Love, and in one scene the Rose is a vagina approached by the lover with his pilgrim’s staff upraised.

Seven centuries later, Seal won Grammys for a song with this line:

I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the gray.

With its ethereal melody and allegorical lyrics (the gray is the gray ocean, representing the bleakness of life before the kiss), the song feels like a throwback – to a time when troubadors plinked lays and rondels on lutes. The sexual side of the sexual-ethereal duality appears in the song’s first line as a phallic “graying tower on the sea.” The romance of the rose continues.

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Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war.

When jihadists call Western nations Crusaders, they are echoing the language of evangelists and hymn books.

Click photo to view source website: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association UK

Hymnals are full of swords and shields, from “Sword of the Lord” (“Smite the enemy till he flee!”) and “We Rest on Thee, Our Shield and Defender” (“We go not forth alone against the foe!”) to the familiar “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and its terrible swift sword.

A famous hymn by Martin Luther begins:

A mighty fortress is our God,

A sword and shield victorious;

He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod

And wins salvation glorious.

In this hymn about St. Stephen, the armaments are explicitly metaphorical:

He bore no shield before his face,

No weapon in his hand,

But only in his heart a flame

And on his lips a sword,

Wherewith he smote and overcame

The foemen of the Lord.

On balance, the hardware in hymns is more often agricultural than military — with much ploughing of souls, planting of faith, and bringing in the sheaves. By far the most frequent image in Christian song is the dawning of a new day after a long, dark night.

Christianity is primarily a religion of individual salvation, but its world is full of enemies.

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