Touching Spirit Bear

by Ben Mikaelsen

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What are the metaphorical lessons that Edwin and Garvey taught Cole in Touching Spirit Bear? What did Cole learn from the metaphors?

The metaphorical lessons that Edwin and Garvey taught Cole in Touching Spirit Bear were each given in an effort to help Cole overcome the anger and violence of his past by finding a way to heal. The two men primarily use metaphorical lessons drawn from food and nature to teach Cole ways he can heal himself of his past and make amends for the hurt he has inflicted on others.

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In Touching Spirit Bear, Edwin and Garvey taught Cole several important lessons regarding healing and forgiveness using metaphors. Before Cole was sent to the island, Garvey used cake ingredients to teach Cole about the human experience. By asking Cole to taste each of the ingredients alone before tasting the cake made from the same ingredients, Garvey gave Cole direction on how to handle his history of abuse at the hands of his father. Just as the individual cake ingredients were primarily distasteful when consumed alone, the anger and abuse of Cole’s past and the violent actions of his present were, in themselves, horrible experiences. However, the cake made from those ingredients tasted good to Cole. Although Cole did not yet seem to understand the lessons Garvey was attempting to teach him, Garvey’s goal was to show Cole that a person can still forge a positive future out of the negative experiences of the past. What a person does with their “ingredients” is up to them, and so far Cole had not used his experiences to become a better person or to help those around him.

Later on the island, Edwin and Garvey taught Cole a similar lesson to that of the cake ingredients, but this time with a hot dog. After Cole’s mediocre meal of a roasted hot dog, Edwin showed Cole how a hot dog should be prepared. By cooking it slowly over the fire to a perfect temperature, adding toppings with great care, and sharing it with Garvey, Edwin taught Cole that one receives from like what one puts into it. Cole put little effort into his meal and only got fed. Edwin put great effort into it and got an experience, a celebration. They were endeavoring to teach Cole that his experience on this island would be a celebration and a positive experience only if Cole put effort into it.

Another of Edwin’s metaphorical lessons to Cole is his use of a stick and the horizon to get Cole to focus on something else besides his anger. Asking Cole to break off the left end of the stick—and thus get rid of his anger—was impossible, because even after breaking it the stick still had a left end. Anger, as Edwin was attempting to explain, never goes away. He then used the sky to get Cole to focus only on the positive. In one direction, the sky appeared stormy, but in another, it was clear. Cole needed to stop thinking his whole sky was stormy and instead change his perspective.

Finally, Edwin and Garvey wanted Cole to learn from the nature around him. The rock he carried up the hill every morning was a metaphor to show Cole how he needed the help of others—his ancestors specifically—to forgive those who hurt him and forgive himself. Pushing the rock down the hill afterwards was a lesson to Cole that overcoming anger was an active process he must do for himself.

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