Caves and Roads Untaken

Allow me to play with some metaphors. There’s an old story Socrates tells in Plato’s Republic, well-known to any college philosophy class or armchair theologian, about a group of prisoners tied up inside of a cave. Behind them is a fire burning, flickering its embers and lighting the rock walls. Between them and the fire are people acting out scenes, projecting shadows on the wall. You sort of get an image of silly summer campers making faces with their fists and projecting them onto the tent fabric using a flashlight.

As for the folks tied up? All they can see or know of their world is those shadows. That is their reality.

As Socrates unveils this story to Glaucon, he tells that one of the prisoners breaks free but is blinded by the light of the fire. His natural inclination is to look away, perhaps turning back to the shadows, but supposing he could be dragged up to the surface and shown the real form of the world, that our world isn’t just shadows, he would undoubtedly be forever changed.

In Socrates version of this story, he supposes that the freed prisoner – perhaps a symbol of a philosopher trying to uncover what’s behind the story of the shadow, the false appearance of reality – decides to return to the cave. Once you’ve been enlightened, it’s just natural you’d want others to see the light, even if they’re blinded at first. But Socrates warns, perhaps an allusion in Plato to the philosopher’s eventual demise, that the prisoners have grown happy with their shadow world, and they could very easily kill the freed prisoner who shows up with his silly stories about the world being anything but shadow. If he encourages them to leave the comfort of their ignorance, they’ll fight back like bigots, painting him, and perhaps rightfully so, as an arrogant, smug liar.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story for the past few months. When you leave the comforts of home, going east into the unknown, the way I did venturing to Morocco and some other places I’ve gone to, you don’t return the same person. Where Socrates paints this lovely picture of the philosopher returning to the cave and enlightening everyone around him about the real world out there, I no longer relate with that. In fact, the image of the philosopher needing everyone to see the truth, even if it is indeed, the truth, seems immature, smug, and cruel to me somehow. I half-wonder and probably relate more to a philosopher who would feel tempted to shackle himself back up and say, “To hell with it; shadows are better. Ignorance is bliss. And this way, there’s no risk of getting killed. After all, no matter what the philosopher thinks he’s seen out there bumbling around in the ‘real world,’ everything is still a kind of shadow. There’s more to reality than reality, more to it than the form of things, and perhaps he’s not as enlightened as he thinks he is.” Maybe rather than dragging everyone “to the light,” the modern philosopher would be tempted instead to shackle himself up in some dark corner of the cave, void of light or darkness, continuing to brood about what all he’d seen as a quiet risk to no one.

But on some level, that is just as immature, probably just as smug in the attempt at gaining a false sense of humility, protecting others from his knowledge, and just as cruel and unfair to the philosopher and everyone who knew him.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself why I ever chose to exit the cave in the first place, why I needed to go, always to be different, to take – as someone put it – “the road less traveled.” In some respects, I have probably repeatedly rejected this path of jumping through hoops and hurdles and doing what everyone asked me to do, the “normal route” if there is such a thing. I wanted to come out of my cave and carve my own direction before I knew what anything was, still blinded by the light. “I will go where I want to, do what I want to,” I claimed and clarified, “When I want to. How I want to. Regardless of who it hurts. And I’ll be damned if anyone tell me differently.”

Perhaps I have been damned. Although, perhaps in our own ways, even those of us who choose the normal path, stay shackled to the cave, or settle down to a nice little home with a nice little family somewhere in suburbia, are just as damned as the rest of us. Except one problem: I don’t believe in the damned. I only believe in the resurrected. I couldn’t have begun to climb out of my cave, step into the world, or even return to the cave, now flooding, if I wasn’t a new person. But standing in a “puddle of murk” so to speak, it has been as if all I’ve done lately was wait for Charon to swing on by and help me into the boat, focused more on the damned than on the resurrected.

And yet, swimming around the River Lethe or burrowing myself in the corner of the cave, whichever metaphor you want to use to describe it, really, and I’m coming to realize those aren’t the places I should be. Now, just now, I’m beginning to rethink the good in that, and I feel a little like I’m ready to say to Charon, “Perhaps another day. I’ve got swimming to do, somewhere else to go.” Or, in reference to the Frost poem, growing up, I very much believed the poem was about choosing the hard, difficult, ‘less traveled’ path. But a closer read of the poem unveils that Frost regards both roads as good choices. “Both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” The only thing that makes the road not taken different is that it wasn’t taken, and he would have liked to have experienced both.

What I’m now doing, still in the river, still conversing with Charon, still staring down the many different paths before me, is preparing for that next place. I’m finding my feet again and carefully deciding what steps I should or need to take. And I’m gaining some clarity, slowly but surely, on where my feet might take me. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I said screw it. Neither path isn’t doing it for me. I’ll go explore the woods. Not because I wanted to be different. But because in trying to be different all these years, I earnestly discovered that I love the woods.

And so, I’ll go. The first chance I get, I think, I’ll climb out of the cave, and I’ll go.


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