Five unsettling questions that can set you free
His first clue came when he caught a gleam of light in the corner of his eye.
The chains holding his head and neck rigid, forcing him to look straight ahead, had loosened slightly. Straining against the chains, he was able to turn his head just enough to see a flickering light behind him, which he watched until the chains were tightened.
The glimmer had penetrated his mind like a sliver.
It festered day after day, hour after hour, as he and his fellow prisoners watched the scenes play out before them.
They watched with dull eyes as men, women, and animals, doing they knew not what, going they knew not where, crossed their vision until they fell asleep. When they opened their eyes again, the same scenes played over and over again.
A new emotion he had never felt before began building inside him. He had not the words to express it — he only knew that for the first time since birth his chains felt burdensome. Previously, he had accepted them as a natural part of his world. He had not questioned them any more than any child would question his arm or leg.
His hands found a small, sharp rock on the ground beside him and he began filing away at a link in the chains. Months later, his tireless efforts had produced only the slightest groove in the thick metal.
But one day, as he awoke and picked up his rock and began filing, he was shocked to discover that the chains were loose. He tugged at them and they dropped from his neck.
He sat in stunned silence, barely able to breathe, almost unable to believe it. He looked to his right, then to his left. His fellow prisoners looked blankly ahead, completely unaware.
For the first time in his life, with his heart pounding in his chest, he stood.
His legs quaked, the atrophied muscles barely able to hold his emaciated frame.
Again, he looked down at his fellow prisoners and was again stunned that none of them had taken notice.
And then, slowly, he turned around.
He gasped and almost fell when he saw an old man standing directly behind him.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the man said.
“For me?” he croaked. “Why?”
“I’ve seen you struggling against your chains.”
“Was it you who released me?”
“Yes. Come. I have many things to show you.”
The old man put his arm around his waist and he leaned his weight on him as they shuffled toward a flickering light behind the prisoners. Still, none of the other prisoners noticed.
About twenty yards behind the shackled prisoners he saw a stone bridge, upon which figures walked.
“What do you see?” the old man asked.
“I…I don’t know, he stammered. “They seem like the objects I’ve been seeing my whole life. But somehow they are different.”
“Yes.” The old man pointed behind them, back to the wall he had faced since birth. “What you’ve thought was reality has been nothing but shadows of reality. The shapes and figures you have watched have no substance. What you see before you now are real.”
His mind cried out in protest. How could this be?
“Look at the light,” the old man commanded.
He lifted his eyes to the source of the light, a flickering fire behind and above the bridge. He quickly turned his head away; the light hurt his eyes.
“Look at it!” The old man grabbed his head and forced him to look at the light.
He squinted his eyes.
“The fire reflects the shadows. Everything you think you know is not real.”
He put his hands on his ears and muttered, “No, it can’t be,” unable to accept the old man’s words. He turned and took a step back toward his familiar place on the floor.
But the old man grabbed him by the waist and began dragging him the other direction. They passed under the bridge and began walking up a tunnel. He could see a small light in the distance.
He tried to fight back. But when his strength failed him, he relented.
The light grew larger until it was right upon them. When they burst into the light, he cried out in pain and covered his eyes with his hands.
The old man waited patiently. It took several minutes before he was able to open his eyes.
He stared in amazement at a new world. Objects and colors he had never seen before clamored for his attention.
The old man sat him down on a rock and began teaching him. First, he started with the names of objects: tree, water, sun. Later that night he saw the moon and stars.
They made camp there and, over the course of several months, the old man taught him about truth, reality, ideals, freedom.
“The soul of reason. The light of truth. The path of dialectic leading to understanding, even of goodness itself. These are Plato’s great ideals.
“Still, the Myth of the Cave reveals a bitter truth: Most people prefer life in the cave. The world and institutions around us reflect it — and people get upset and even furious when someone challenges their fondest illusions — what Francis Bacon would call the Idols of the Tribe — especially if everything else is collapsing around them.”
He pondered the old man’s words.
“I have to go back.”
The old man nodded.
“I have to go back and free my brothers and sisters. They have to know what I know.”
“Be prepared for disappointment,” the old man warned. “You will find that they do not want to know.
“But since you must try, if you would free your brothers and sisters, these are the questions you must help them answer:
- What is your cave and what are your chains that hold you captive?
- What are your illusions?
- What drugs are you taking that make you tolerate your chains and accept your illusions?
- Who can help you break your chains and take you to the light, and will you submit to him or her?
- Do you value freedom more than comfort and security?”
The old man paused. “One final word of advice: Don’t waste your time with the content, unquestioning ones. Look for the ones who are struggling against their chains.”