Today I ponder the sentence, “I have your back.” Depending on the source, that sentence can be quite comforting, most probably intended to be so by the speaker. It’s a sentence offered, usually with a wink, a click of the tongue and an assuring smile, as support, shorthand for “I will be your backup in a fight, your second to celebrate the win or console the loss.” Spoken by a tried and true friend, you know the invaluable purchase of the sentiment despite the cliche’d expression. By a lover, the comfort may be dubious.
On the one hand, a lover’s deeper connection and care should inform that assertion with commensurate depth and caliber of worthy comfort. However, given the heart’s investment and volatility of passion, the motivation to employ machinations to keep someone, avoid loss, manipulation being integral to human coveting, is high. As such, a lover’s declaration is far more unstable and somewhat suspect counterintuitively because most would believe the opposite. Of course he has my back. He loves me.
Clichés are dead metaphors, most English teachers and long-suffering students know, but it is astounding to think that the expression, “I have your back” or less grammatically sound, “I got your back”, was once a vivid metaphor that caused a grand éclat at its crispness, a concept derived from an odd literal body position vis a vis another human being. I mean, how does someone actually have your back? My lover is a psychopath, cut me to pieces, saving only my back, maybe just the lower third of my torso in his refrigerator. Seems anatomically impossible, or at least unimaginable.
More likely, and I am probably remembering this from some forgotten space in my vast and sundry tidbit collection eating up all my brain RAM (just don’t want to interrupt the flow to look it up), it is a war reference to protect soldiers while they “go for it” from behind the trenches or the thicket of trees: protective, life preserving–or the attempt–in dangerous situations. The speaker intends to warn you and be your second pair of eyes to ensure your odds against getting picked off by a sniper, a guy with a gun or anyone who is prepared to do physical, emotional or psychological harm (or any combination thereof).
War metaphors seem apt in matters of the heart. The struggle with desire to surrender and need to protect the heart, a part of every love story long or short, feels like goose stepping on a mine field. We want to believe in the truth of words, especially those that contain the universally cherished missive “I love you.” Even as we fear the risk of injury, we want the message and will find it hidden in so many other words, so much so that we miss important cues and clues that language emits to the brain to shape behavior.
When language is abused, words divorced from their communally consensual meaning–an irrevocable breach, is when the battle ensues and treachery flies, innocent lives lost. Children spend many years forming the world through their initiation into language. Accessing the portal to ideas and things is granted only upon the trust in the safety of the vehicle that brings them to that door: words. They learn trust in the great unspoken agreement of humanity that words will mean what they were taught to mean by parents, schools and community. The ensuing savvy acquired through rubbing against other humans in the journey of days is the slipperiness of words and the deviousness of people.
But not all is lies and deception, not all words suspect. A lover, friend or business partner may mean he has your back when he says it but change his mind later. Though true when he said it, even if he said it over a dozen times, repeated it like a lullaby’s refrain, his mind or heart changed and so stopped saying it because he no longer wished to protect.
Or maybe the last time he said it, “I have your back,” the meaning of the expression–so broad and vague, practically incomprehensible–changed imperceptibly (unconsciously, to give him the benefit of the doubt) to reflect a different, newly emerging intention, a slightly different slant or even a total inversion. Maybe his subconscious drew the invisible target on your back for the bullseye knife throw:
Love is war. War is hell. I’ve got your back. It’s in my scope and my finger is on the trigger.
The language of love (and war) exposed in innumerable metaphors and clichés (think: love is blind) is a special case of the general, meaning it partakes of the attributes of language, generally, while nuanced with its own subject-specific idiosyncrasies. Love engenders both lies and truth motivated by intentions and causes distinct from commerce, for instance: lying to spare my husband’s feelings rather than for profit.
To be imperfectly reductive or hopelessly expansive, however, the nature of all language (written, spoken and body) is twofold: communicative and formative. It gets the job done, sends the message, and delivers the goods. At the same time, it gave us the job, the message and the goods in the first place. A cat becomes a four legged furry creature that mews for the child who learns its name. Before that, it is something unknown and out of focus.
Like its inhabitants, language–messenger or maker–is cagey, illusive, illustrative, beautiful, crafted, elusive and mutable. Many more thoughtful and capable before me have doubted the possibility of getting outside of it. But so too, many have escaped its clutches, unthought wordless language in meditation. It takes being both within and without the self to achieve that place that words fail to describe–a place without desire for anyone at your back.