Life is Like a River: River as Metaphor


"Perhaps one of the reasons why people have been drawn to rivers since time immemorial and why they have regarded them as sacred is because they are the perfect metaphor for our lives." --From Keith Harrison, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 1995.

Discuss the meaning of metaphor and begin to explore the metaphor "life is like a river."

  • In what ways is life like a river? (Always moving forward; has a source and an end; starts small and gains substance from its bed and its bed and its tributaries; has a history; does not maintain a constant speed; meanders; floods; rapids; change in depth and breadth of channel; reacts to forces around it; etc.)
  • In what ways is human existence (and the history of human existence) like a river? (Humans have a common source; groups of humans have cut new channels, migrated, meandered; humans are constantly evolving, carrying with them much for deposit elsewhere; humans cut larger or smaller, more shallow or deeper, swaths than one another; etc.)
  • What is a river's end? (A body of water such as a lake, sea, or ocean.)
  • What is at a river's end? (A delta, a deposition of its load/sediment.)
  • What are your thoughts on the parallels between a river's end and the end of a human life?


"You can never step into the same river twice." -Heraclitus

Have students first write and then discuss their ideas as to what they think Heraclitus meant by this quotation. With your interpretation in mind, do you agree or disagree with him? State your reasoning.

Thinking about the metaphor of " life as a river," can the same be said about a person's life? You can never step into the same life twice? In which ways do you agree and in which ways do you disagree?


"Poetry is a section of river-fog and moving boat - lights, delivered between bridges and whistles, so one says, 'Oh!,' and another, 'How?'" --Carl Sandburg

Have students create a poem or poems prompted by something discussed in this activity. Create a river or water abstraction to serve as the background on which to write the poem/free writing/commentary. Some ideas:

  • The River of Me
  • Losing My Source
  • Adolescence: The Rapids
  • Go With The Flow
  • Watching My River Flow
  • A Tribute to the Tributaries
  • Come Join My River
  • Stepping into the River

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Center for Global Environmental Education
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