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Have you heard the allegory of Plato’s Cave? In the text*, a man tells a story about prisoners inside a cave who have been chained to a wall since childhood.  All they can see is shadows on the cave wall in front of them.  As animals and people pass by the entrance of the cave, the prisoners hear the sounds and see the shadows on the wall and assume the shadows are the real source of the sound.  If one of these prisoners were freed, and could turn and walk into the light of day, his first sensation would be the pain of the bright light.  His fear at leaving what is familiar may cause him to hesitate.  But as he steps into the light, he begins to see real people and animals, and as his eyes adjust, he gradually becomes enlightened.

(*There is more to the story than my very brief summary, and the text is easily searchable online by looking for Plato’s Cave.)

This portion of The Republic was required reading during my first year Intro to Philosophy course, and is likely familiar to anyone who has taken philosophy or liberal arts in the past. The imagery is easily remembered, and the truth to the allegory seems straight-forward (unless of course you want to start talking about Plato’s Forms and Philosopher-Kings, which of course is beyond the scope of this post).

It wasn’t until my fourth year course in Postmodernism that I started asking questions about Plato’s Cave.  How does the freed prisoner know that the reality he now sees before him is “truer” than that of the shadows in the cave?  And how can he be certain there isn’t a more true reality that he still has not attained?

My worldview has been challenged recently, which is why all of this has been on my mind lately.  For quite awhile, as long as I can remember really, I have filtered experiences in a particular way – I’ve learned to call some things “this”, and other things “that”.  Some of the difficulty with Borderline Personality Disorder comes from finding that things do not neatly fit into the category of “this” or “that”, and that other people do not sort experiences by the same criteria as myself.

We all have these inner systems of belief that we hold to be true.  They may be idioms we apply to all people, such as “success = wealth” or “if people would just ______, they would be happy.”  Or it might be something you believe is only true about yourself – “I will never be good at ______” or “boys only like me for my looks”.  It doesn’t take a mental health diagnosis to believe untruths about oneself.

When these inner belief systems are challenged by new experiences that don’t fit neatly into the filtering system we depend on, we often feel the same sense of hesitation, even fear, that the freed prisoner faces upon leaving the cave.  Even if our old truths are not comfortable or pleasant, they are at least familiar.  It is easier to continue believing what one has always assumed to be true, than to retrain oneself to learn a new behaviour or thought pattern.

Here’s an example of what I mean: somewhere along the line growing up, I mixed up my left and my right.  As an adult, I can tell you which way is left and which way is right if I am given a moment to think about it.  I know the tricks (my left hand makes an L when I extend my thumb and first finger, and I write with my right hand) but in a split second moment I will often mistakenly direct Kathryn to turn left while simultaneously gesturing for her to go right.  This small example shows how pervasive our early systems of thought can be.  Despite many years of knowing the truth, being surrounded by people who believe the truth, and having many experiences of minor embarrassment for mixing up the truth, I still sometimes say left when I mean right.

However, I don’t experience the same sense of fear or hesitation when confronting my “left and right conundrum” as I do when facing a challenge to a more significant aspect of my worldview.  The logic of why I should refer to one direction as right and the other as left is very clear to me.  The fear that comes with more difficult challenges is rooted in not knowing how to be certain of this new reality, how to know for sure what is “most true.”

Getting hung up on needing to be certain about things has never been a good path for me.  My mind is capable of spinning endless “what if” scenarios.  Questioning everything seems to flow in my bloodstream.  And when my brain chemicals are lacking in the serotonin department (which happens for me from time to time), it’s very easy to resort to a nihilistic view of the world.  If I can’t be certain about reality, identity, purpose, love, or God, then there must be no meaning in these words at all.  If there is no clear path away from suffering and toward peace, then there is no point of journeying.  And if there is a clear path, I question my ability to stay on it, to change old destructive patterns and live with more peace.

This response to questioning is obviously riddled with hopelessness.  So when an aspect of my fundamental inner filtering system was recently challenged, my life seemed to stall.  It was as if this new possibility before me was causing the needle to skip on the record.  I could see the logic in my therapist’s perspective.  I could understand how my belief was hindering growth and peace in my life.  But I was so afraid to step out of that cave.  If what I have always assumed to be true is being questioned, how am I to understand reality?

For awhile I really struggled to come up with an answer but slowly it dawned on me that I have been in this place before and have found the path away from nihilism and toward meaning.  For me, hope and peace fill my life when I recognize that in each moment I have a choice between life and death.  I live life and death scenarios every day.  Not, literally in the sense of a traumatic injury or fatal disease, but in small ways.  The words I use, the ways I spend my time, the judgments I make about myself and others – these are all moments to choose between life and death.  St. Ignatius called this choice consolation and desolation – what draws us outward from darkness towards light, compassion, and connection with others, nature and God; and what turns us inwards towards fear, pity and judgment.

And so, although I hesitate knowing that shifting my pattern of thinking will require hard work and a lot of practice, I choose to step forward.  I recognize the places where my old system of belief fails me, and I accept my fear in moving forward.  I choose to allow myself this period of hesitation, recognizing that change is difficult and that suffering best heals when exposed to compassion, rather than criticism.

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