The allegory of the cave, explained by me (and Plato I guess, but mainly me because it’s my post so, yeah…)

I may get this a little wrong so calm down if you’re a philosophy geek who knows everything. I’m remembering from decades ago the allegory of the cave, Plato’s explanation of reality. He used an imagined conversation between his mentor, Socrates, and a student, some guy. Yeah – I know, eventually someone’s gonna throw in a comment with the guy’s name. Have at it. So the allegory of the cave, wherever I heard it first, had an impact on me. I was the kid in class who came in out of a semi-sleep state, mostly to draw things like 3-D boxes and scrappy self-portraits or experiment with new ways to sign my name. Suffice it to say, I had attention span issues. Given this, it was always somewhat significant when I did connect with a new idea and, over the years, I’ve been consistently impressed when they have turned up to help me make sense of some pretty major life events. The Plato allegory was no exception.

It goes something like this. A bunch of prisoners sit in a row in a dark cave, legs and necks shackled so that they can only see straight ahead of them to a wall. Behind them there is a fire and between the fire and their backs there are puppeteers walking on a path holding various figures, like people and animals. All the prisoners are able to see is the form (shadows) that the figures make on the wall. This is their reality. Plato believes that form is a shallow understanding of reality because, clearly, it is a secondary interpretation of the real thing, the actual object casting the shadow. Regardless, the prisoners spent their days discussing the shadows with each other, forming opinions about who described one form or another better and ranking one  another accordingly.

Today, as I reflect on my life before cancer, I feel like I also experienced this type of false perception. I saw my life, relationships, responsibilities, family and the world in general at face value, as it happened to appear before me. My obligation to interpreting and valuing the true meaning of the facets of my life was limited to my experience. I was born looking a certain way and living in a certain way. I had a family, I had friends and I developed relationships with people. I formed opinions of the people in my life as they presented themselves. I had an idea of who I was by what I saw in the mirror, what people said about me, or how I was rewarded or punished. When I wanted to get a little deeper I would read a book and maybe the author would give me a few more ideas to think about. My reality consistently expanded and consequently, I felt that I was growing and evolving nicely. My universe did not feel limited in the least. 

The allegory continues when Plato describes a prisoner becoming free of the chains and turning around. Or maybe they all did. I forgot. Anyway, he or they turn around and when they see the actual people holding the figures, they were blown away by the details. They realized all at once that their reality had been false and that these figures which had way more depth and detail were real, while their formal perception of reality had been totally wrong.

When I was given the news that I had cancer, I realized all at once, literally in a single moment, that I had it all wrong. I was part of a slow burn to the finish line. I had been accepting reality as it presented itself, using a 2=dimensional approach to my perception of what life really meant. That’s all I knew. I suspect that may be all that most of us lead with. The news came and for the next few days, weeks, my life passed in front of my eyes, just like you hear about, but in slow motion. As the events of almost half a decade presented themselves for my review, something really amazing happened. It was like I was given a second shot at seeing my life. I couldn’t relive it but I could re-examine it. I saw value in things that I previously thought to be trivial and dismissed a ton of cluttery junk that I now deemed worthless. I truly felt that I was given the ability through this experience of seeing the details for the first time. Everything was more vivid and I was acutely aware of what it was to feel real life.

In the last part of the allegory, Plato allows a prisoner to escape the cave and spend time in the outside world. There is sun instead of fire so suddenly reality is not only detailed but vivid and clear, unobstructed by the shadows and firelight. His perception of reality is again altered. When he returns to the cave he tells the other prisoners about what he saw and, sadly, they think he’s lost his mind. He, knowing what he saw to be real, now sees the prisoners as ignorant, separated from reality in the cave. He continues trying to explain (like any good philosopher) but, I’m guessing here, how could he possibly?

I sometimes have an overwhelming urge to evangelize my experience with cancer because it has taught me so much. It probably annoys some people. I don’t remember exactly what it was like to not know what I know now, to not feel what I’m able to feel. The freedom, the peace, and the gratitude that I hold with me now measure the details of the world around me. I look at it now with a deeper love than I could have ever previously imagined. My sincere hope is that I can encourage others to look beyond their perceived views of the world and relish in the awesome details that await them.


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