Metaphors, analogies, idioms and similes can help us communicate better, think things through, and reflect on our life experiences.
But they can also help us think our way through grief, anxiety and pain.
Metaphors for life offer us all of this. They offer us the chance to come to terms with our own death, grieve and remember those who have recently died, and reflect on how to live the most fulfilling lives possible.
You may also notice that life metaphors underpin many of the books we read and films we watch. From coming-of-age books like Harry Potter through to life stories like Forest Gump, life lessons are central to the stories we tell one another.
This article presents some of the most pertinent metaphors, similes, idioms and analogies for life that provide us with ways to grapple with big questions like “is life worth it?” and “what does it mean to live a good life?”
Metaphors for Life
1. A Box of Chocolates
I wanted to start with my favorite (from Forest Gump!):
“My mama always said life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get!”
While the way Forest Gump explained it made it a simile (that use of the term ‘like’ is in there), you could easily turn it into a metaphor: “Life is a box of chocolates.”
This metaphor weaves its way through all of the Forest Gump movie.
It highlights how there is so much out of our own hands in life. Sometimes good things happen, sometimes bad things happen. It’s a mixed bag! (That’s another metaphor right there).
So, Gump relates life to those boxes of chocolates where it’s a mix of different chocolates in the box. Put your hand in and – well – you might get one you like or you might get one you’re not so keen on.
But, just like life, you just don’t know what’s coming around the corner.
2. A Blank Canvas
The saying that ‘life is a blank canvas’ refers to the idea that you can do whatever you want with your life. It’s yours to paint. This saying is closely connected to philosophies of life that focus on freedom of choice. It’s also designed to be incredibly empowering and to encourage people to be creative in their lives.
3. A Story
The idea that life is a story might also be summed up as ‘life is a novel’, where you are the author. This metaphor is very similar to the above ‘canvas’ metaphor, except that this one might be your literary version of that artistic metaphor!
It’s another empowering metaphor because it shows you that you can choose what you want to do with your life – write your own story!
4. A Marathon, not a Sprint
If we’re lucky, we live for many decades. So, we need to think long term. We’re ‘running a marathon’ rather than sprinting, because it’s a long journey we’re on. This metaphor reminds us to slow down and do a little work each and every day. We can’t burn ourselves out too much, and when we hit setbacks we must remember there’s still a long way to go, so don’t give up.
5. A Circle
The ‘circle of life’ refers to the idea that we all get a chance at going through stages from birth to death. But, it reminds us that we do die eventually. And when we die, we step aside to allow others to have life.
This metaphor is perhaps best known from the movie The Lion King where Mufasa tells Simba that all life relies on each other. We eat the antelope, but when we die we turn to grass, and the antelope eat the grass to complete the circle.
6. A Garden
The metaphor of the garden situates you as both the gardener and the garden. You need to remember to tend to your garden (your life), weed it, and ensure it gets lots of sun and water. This is a highly figurative on: we’re not really talking about sunshine, but perhaps the reference here is to the importance of smiling and laughing. Similarly, water might be the emotional sustenance we need throughout our lives.
7. A Game
To consider life as a game is to think about it as a puzzle to solve. We need to think ahead and make moves now that will help us in the future. It might be the game of Monopoly, for example, where we need to decide what to buy and when to buy it.
But just like a board game, there’s an element of luck in our lives. Sometimes a roll of the dice is good for us and other times it lands us in trouble.
8. An Onion
There is ‘depth’ to our lives. When someone meets us, they clearly don’t know everything about us. But as we get to know someone, we peel back the layers of the onions and get to know one another better and better. Under one layer we might learn about spirituality. Under another, we will learn about our unique idiosyncrasies. This metaphor reminds us the take the time to get to know one another.
9. A Stage Play
Shakespeare famously said that life is a theater and we all are the actors:
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”
This is a very complex quote with many moving parts! At the core here is the idea that we all have our role to play in the story of our lives, but also that we aren’t necessarily the central characters in the world.
The point that we all play many parts also points out the complexity of life. We might be the hero in our own story and the villain in another’s.
10. A Gift
This might be my favorite metaphor for life. It reminds us that we’re blessed to have the chance to live in this world. We need to cherish every moment.
You’ll often hear this metaphor when a new baby is born, where we consider the baby to be a gift to the world. Without new life, we likely would all be a little worried and distressed! So, young lives are always a gift. But so too are grandparents, parents, brothers, and sisters.
11. A Mountain Climb
The mountain climbing metaphor again refers to this idea that life is a marathon. A mountain looks like an insurmountable climb, but if we take it one step at a time we can grind it out.
Then, once we’re at the top, we’ll be able to look down from our beautiful viewpoint and reflect on our amazing accomplishments.
For more, see our article on Mountain Metaphors.
12. A Hill
Sometimes, you hear people as they get older saying “I’m over the hill”. Of course, they haven’t literally climbed a hill, but they’re saying that they have completed the part of their life where they’re growing, getting stronger and improving.
Now, in the second half of life, these people feel as if they’re going back downhill. This might be related to cognitive decline, or might even refer to the fact they’ve done all the hard work and now they can enjoy their old age – they’re no longer trying hard to climb, but coasting downwards.
13. Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood
This line from a Robert Frost poem asks you to examine your life and how to live it. The last three lines read:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The premise of this poem is that you have choices in your life, particularly at pivotal moments. You can choose to go in one direction or another. And it’s your job as the author of your own life to choose the best path for you.
But there is another message here. Frost is saying you should be bold to live a life that is unique, and while it may be hard to follow paths that are less certain, it can also be rewarding.
14. A Journey
The above poem also tells us something else: life is a journey, and you are the traveller. You can picture yourself walking through diverse landscapes. Years that are tough might be equated to walking through the dessert. But sometimes you will come across an oasis or a beautiful viewpoint, which are the reasons we go on marching year in and year out.
15. A Masterpiece
When we say ‘life is a masterpiece’, we’re referring to just how remarkable life is. It’s filled with beautiful moments. And when we go for a walk, we see life in the ponds and trees and can pause for a moment to marvel at God’s masterpiece.
Of course, this is a popular metaphor among religious people, because they see everything around them as a masterpiece painted by God.
16. A Comedy and a Tragedy
Horace Walpole – a British politician and writer – once wrote:
“Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.”
This metaphor highlights how life can cause existential angst if we let it. But we can also choose to laugh at the futility of life, and the certainty of death.
It’s a metaphorical version of the saying “you can either laugh or cry” at something that is going to end sadly, but also that you can’t do anything about.
17. A Choose your Own Adventure Book
I love the sense of empowerment of this metaphor. As a child I used to read Goosebumps books. At the end of every chapter, you got a choice of which chapter to read next so you could choose how your story ends.
Life in many ways is a choose your own adventure book. Every now and then you get a new path to walk down and you can choose which path sounds more exciting to you!
18. A Building you Build for Yourself
You can imagine you building up your life one brick at a time. Every day, you wake up and place more bricks on the temple you call your ‘life’.
But don’t forget to step back and look at the big picture of what you’re building. Set it on solid foundations, and create a structure you can be proud of. You also want to make sure it won’t collapse upon itself, so make good decisions every single day!
19. A Temple
This metaphor builds on the last.
The idea that your life is a temple reminds you that you are creating something that is sacred. When building your building (see above metaphor), you’re not just building any building. You are constructing something that’s precious and needs protection. You’re building yourself a temple for your spirit.
Metaphors for Life Changes
20. A Rollercoaster
The rollercoaster metaphor is one of the most famous for many different situations. It refers to the idea that something is full of ups, downs and loop-the-loops.
Life fits well into this metaphor. Life has unexpected turns, high rises and big falls. It can be thrilling but also scary. And all you can do sometimes is hang on for the ride!
21. A Lottery
The idea that life is a lottery highlights the luck that goes into our existence. Sometimes we feel like we have no control over what happens to us. Some people are born into wealth, others into poverty. Some diseases seem to target you for one reason or another, while others get long years of health.
22. A Series of Lessons
Every day you learn something new. And if you look at life like this, no matter what happens – good or bad – you can reflect on and take it as an important lesson for your life. If you see everything that happens as a lesson, you will become a very wise person by the time you’re older.
23. A Battle
The idea that life is a battle highlights the difficulties we face. We don’t get through life without scars and bruises along the way. And it’s our job to “keep battling on!”
This is an adversarial way to look at life, and highlights the negative aspects. But I think it could be useful when commiserating with others about how hard life is, especially during rough times.
24. A Maze
Imagine being in the middle of a maze. You don’t know your way out, or where you’re headed. You’re making the most of things, but you never have a bird’s eye view of how things are going and which corners will lead you where.
Life is like this. You can do your best to navigate, but it’s hard to plan too far in the future because you don’t have a bird’s eye view of what’s going to be around the next corner.
There’s a saying: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
I don’t think this is quite a metaphor, but it’s certainly an interesting figure of speech so I thought I’d share it here, too! This saying highlights that you’re going to get a lot of things in life that seem sour and saddening. But it’s your job to make do with what you’ve got. So, make something you like out of whatever life hands you!
(I think here you’re personifying life – so it might be a case of personification rather than metaphor).
There are tons and tons of metaphors for life in our language. Above are just a sample of some of the most common ones you might come across. These metaphors can help you explain your feelings about life, come up with ways of explaining characters in biographies, or even just reflect on how you think about life.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.