Plato, the Allegory of the Cave and National Coming Out Day

Plato was one of the early Greek SPA boys (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle). He was a philosopher, an epistemologist (don’t stop reading yet, epistemology is just one of my favorite 75 cent words – it gets at how we think about what we know and whether we can trust what we know), in Book 7 of the Republic, he wrote “the Allegory of the Cave” as a way to think about some of the difficulties related to knowledge. I also think of the “Allegory of the Cave” as having some important implications related to coming out (coming out of the cave, out of the closet – it could be funny of you don’t think about it too hard?). October 11 is National Coming Out Day, so I felt like I had to say something about coming out! Anyway, gere is an abridged, paraphrased version of the allegory of the cave….

Plato asks his students to imagine that human beings lived in an underground cave. The people of the cave have lived there all their lives. Their legs and necks are chained so that they cannot move. They can only see what is in front of them because the chains prevent them from even turning their heads around. Behind and above the cave people there is a balcony with a bonfire burning. Between the cave people and the balcony, there is a wall with a walkway behind it. People walk along this walkway, carrying large containers and statues. All of the things that are being carried show over the wall and the light from the bonfire behind them casts a constantly moving shadow on the wall of the cave.

Because of the way they are chained and because of the fire behind everything, the people of the cave only see the shadows that dance on the cave wall. So, for the people of the cave, the truth is literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

But then, one day the people of the cave are released from their chains. One of them soon turns and looks at the light. But, remember what it is like when you have been in a dark room and you walk out into the sunlight? Your first reaction is to close your eyes because it hurts. Even when you re-open your eyes, it is hard to see anything at all because of the glare. Even more so for the people of the cave who have no experience at all with looking into the light. And so it takes a while for the people of the cave to become accustomed to the light, and to learn to clearly understand what they were seeing. Someone of them has to be the first to risk the pain of peering into the light, of experiencing the new vision, and of communicating that vision to the others in the cave. It is likely that others will not believe the new vision at first, perhaps until some others also brave the experience.

The allegory holds a number of lessons that can carry to build an understanding of human behavior that contributes to a culture of justice and respect for human rights. The belief that the shadow of reality IS reality is analogous to the belief that any one way of being is the only correct, normal, true way of being. Heterosexual, Christian, white, male, able bodied all of those ways of being have been held to be the only correct, normal, true way of being. Coming out of the cave of shadows can be difficult and painful, but there is so much more richness to life than mere shadows. The rainbow of diversity is worth discovering, exploring and celebrating!

The allegory of the cave reminds us that there is often more to human behavior than meets the eye. Sometimes what we think we are seeing is not what is really happening. It reminds us that the search for truth requires taking some risks; the search for truth can involve some personal struggle, but it is worth the struggle. And sometimes, maybe even often, it helps to have a good teacher who has traveled the road before us who can guide us in our path of discovery.

Come out, come out where every you are!! Happy Coming Out Day!

Saving fish from drowning

There are (at least) two recurrent and worrisome themes that anyone working bring about social change, anyone engaged in the alchemy of justice should keep in the front of our hearts and minds. One is Terry Goodkind’s second rule from the Wizards Rules in his Sword of Truth series. The Wizard’s second rule says that the greatest harm can result from the best intentions.  And the second theme is the assertion by Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Psychology, which reminds us that 90% of what we see is projection. Amy Tan’s story of a man who dedicated his life to Saving Fish from Drowning is a great example of both of these themes.

Amy Tan tells the story of a pious man who daily explained to his followers that it is evil to take lives and noble to save them. And, so each day he pledged to save 100 lives. And each day he would drop his net into the lake – I think it was Lake Erie – and he would scoop out 100 fish. He would then place the fish on the bank where they would flop and twirl

“Don’t be scared” he would tell the fish, “I am saving you from drowning.”  Soon enough the fish would grow calm and lie still. Yet sad to say, he was always too late. The fish always died.

And because it is evil to waste anything, he would take those dead fish to market and sell them for a good price at the market – it might have been the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx.

With the money he received, he would buy more nets so he could save more fish.

He just wanted to help save lives.

He had the best of intentions. He saw the fish in need of saving. He say himself as their savior. We each need to view the process and practices of work for social change, for the alchemy of justice, through the lens of accurate empathy, compassion and respect for unique and particular vulnerabilities and dignity. The skills of listening and deep empathy are important tools to facilitate this process.