The flickering light is not the real world
By Richard Carey
In his “Republic,” Plato paints an allegorical picture of prisoners in a fire-lit cave who derive their perceptions of reality from the shadows flickering across the cave walls. This, he proposes, is an apt analogy for the self-limited state of human knowledge and experience. The prisoners have grown so accustomed to this way of seeing and living that the idea of leaving the cave to discover the greater reality terrifies them. They keep their gaze toward the walls. They are hypnotized by the interplay of light and shadow. They persuade themselves that this is the only truth they need.
The poignance of Plato’s vision came to me over the past holiday season as I sat in an overcrowded airport terminal, in the midst of a pandemic surge, like thousands of others across the nation, coping with a cascade of delayed and canceled flights, wondering if we’d ever reach our destinations. People dutifully wore their masks, but safe distancing was a joke, with each broken leg of the journey depositing us in yet another waiting room in yet another crowded vestibule of hell.
c Here and there someone’s voice rose to complain, but there was no viable option except to comply and wait, to keep staring balefully at the big screen of arrivals and departures, to turn again and again to our little screens. It was all of this that evoked for me the image of Plato’s cave.
It might be argued that the mind itself is like Plato’s cave. Take my mind, for example, as I squirm in that cruel terminal chair, trying to immunize myself from all the negative energy I feel around and within. My inner screen teems with a constant flutter of entangled thoughts and memories, none permanent, but still providing a comforting, if illusory, proof that I exist, that I am real.
Like one of Plato’s prisoners, I cling to my illusions because the alternative is frightening, although at times the illusions themselves, as now in this awful terminus, are so disturbing that I look for ways to get beyond them, to find a greater reality, to find peace. But the notion of being unharnessed from all that I know or think that I know is scary. And how do I know, even if I achieve detachment from the illusions that assail me in this place, that the “better” place beyond is not just another illusion?
I think of a haunting line from Edgar Allan Poe: “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?”
Or from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience”: “Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion.”
I settle finally on the idea that illusion is a kind of sweetener, a gift from the universe, giving color and flavor to the void. It allows us a sense of interaction, of being a player in the make-believe game. The shadow play is a curious art form, presenting us with both welcome and unwelcome themes. The trick is not to be governed by these illusions (not always easy), any more than I should be governed by the transitory hues of a beautiful sunset or the ripples of a too-real nightmare.
Meanwhile, the battery in my phone is dying, so I turn it off. The charging stations are all in use, and too many other prisoners worriedly await their turn. I do some breathing exercises. I’m OK. Considering the plight of so many others in this place, I take it as a spot of bittersweet luck that I am only delayed, not canceled. I know that eventually I will reach my destination, and the family will welcome me, even though I’m a bit late to the party. I am happy to be there.
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