A man named Plato lived about 2400 years ago. You may have heard of him. He was Athenian. That’s not Greek as we know it because Greece as a nation, or even our concept of nations, hardly existed. Athens was a dominant nation-state in a tumultuous Greek region where cities sided with the Persian King Xerxes as often as with each other. Written around 380 BCE, Plato’s Res Publica includes the story of his famous cave.
The Allegory of the Cave tells of many people facing a blank wall inside a cave. On that wall, they see the cast shadows of objects back lit by a fire these people cannot see. To them, the shadows are the objects instead of a single monodimensional aspect of a three-dimensional objects waiting behind them, if only they would turn their heads or even think to see.
I thought it silly the first time I read it. Why wouldn’t they turn? In what possible world would prisoners stare only at the dull gray features cast ahead of them and never wonder about the wider details beyond? How could any reader believe that a group of humans would simply accept the world in front of them and wonder no more? Humans are inquisitive, intelligent creatures almost wholly unique in our capacity to compound and share knowledge. Why should we accept this story where people behave just the opposite of humankind, at their own terrible expense?
Plato, wise as ever and well deserving of his place among civilization’s greater thinkers, knew better. This is a peculiar aspect of the kludgy human mind. I speak of humans only because we can’t really understand how other species engage with the world. As Plato shows us, we barely understood how we engage with the world.
I am in a cave today. It is a cave built with walls of soreness and exhaustion. Those walls, you could say, are built of pain. It isn’t the definitive pain of injury. We seem to know when we are actually damaged. Instead, it’s the pain of long use. My legs ache. My knees feel like they’re made of cured cement instead of muscle, tendon, bone, and blood. My feet hurt. In the worlds of pain that can exist, mine is small, simple, and of my own doing. I’ve worked out too much. A smartphone app shows me exactly what I did to myself: this many miles across this many minutes for this much elevation change. There is no mystery. I ran a lot and now I’m sore, tired, and cranky.
The pain cave is a familiar retreat to athletes, manual laborers, and anyone else who spends time using their bodies for work. I’m physically curled in on myself like the penguin whose turn it is to face the Antarctic winds while the tribe stays warm. Fluorescent light is harsh, almost scolding. My throat is thick and dry. A water fountain sits not 15 feet from me. I think about standing, moving for water, drinking it, and returning to my seat and I am somehow more tired. The world is a dark, cold, uncaring place, a boggy misery, the pouring rain that keeps you from the lake during summer break. The bleak clocks flashes 09:43. Only seven hours to go before I can head home to work and sleep.
If this all sounds melodramatic, you’re right. It is. It’s also what my brain, my cave, is showing me. When I look inside my drained thoughts I see shadows on the wall where detail and color once lived. I’ll stay here a little longer and then I’ll force myself to take a walk, to feel the sun, to drink some water, and I’ll feel better. Tomorrow I’ll work out again and will be stronger.
This same thing happens to some people without the definable cause. I can pinpoint mine down to the tenth of a mile and fraction of a second. They wake like this, live like this, struggle to sleep like this, catch glimpses of the sun like this, and burrow farther and farther into their own cave where they watch the dimming shadow puppets of their lives. All from that peculiar aspect of the kludgy human mind. Because we view the world through the interpreter that is our brain, we trust that brain too much. We rely on it beyond the point of breaking. We trust what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Those are the five senses, after all. Why would I not trust something I’m feeling now when I’ve trusted that sense my entire life and made it this far? Surely the world is ending. My body is the Messenger of Doom and my mind its Witness.
Plato’s story addresses exactly this. There is more to your world than you can immediately experience. We abound with senses: balance, temperature, pain, the wonderful awareness of where your body is in relation to itself even with your eyes closed and your brain totally disoriented. My operating system is not the extent of my existence. The shadows on the wall do not represent the wide world. We should assume that no matter what we know or see or feel or think that there is more and that our minds are only one, albeit powerful, tool in the toolbox of our lives.
I think about Plato, sitting at a desk in ancient Athens, and I wonder what made him realize this. What was his epiphany? Was it an earth-shattering Delphic insight into the weird world that is humanity, or did he glimpse the shadow from his curled scroll, laugh, and begin scribbling? Was this a certainty to the man or was he trying to capture a fleeting concept that he himself struggled to remember? Was he lost and alone in his own cave or was he standing in the sun?
It’s something I will do well to remember as I hunker down inside my pain cave and wait for the storms to pass, as I stare up at personal struggles that seem as wide and tall and unending at the sky, and as I do well and feel that I have learned something, that I know it. Our minds exist inside a larger life. They help us, guide us, protect us, but they are not us. You are you. You must be bigger than the thoughts inside your head today. There’s a whole world waiting.