“There is in every one of us, even those who seem to be the most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild, and lawless.” — Plato, The Republic
Back when I was walking across America for Democracy, I was often told that America is not a “democracy”, but a “republic”. I loved it when people brought this up, because there are surprisingly few segues into a discussion about Plato’s Republic, which is a huge influence on my personal philosophy. Plato was rad!
If you haven’t read Plato’s Republic, I won’t ruin it with spoilers. I do, however, find it relevant and timely to bring up one small part of his work, which is a section he called, “The Allegory of the Cave”.
The story is simple. A gaggle of human prisoners are chained together on a bench inside of a cave, watching shadows on the wall from a puppet show directly behind them. The prisoners, locked up together since birth, can’t turn their heads enough to see the puppets or the fire which casts the shadows, so they assume that the shadows are the only evidence they need about the nature of reality. They see a shadow of a book, hear it called a book, so of course they know what a book is. They really don’t need to discuss it further.
Now — say one prisoner is freed from his or her chains. He (or she!) can walk around in the cave and see the fire and puppets and discern that this is “reality”, not the shadows. But the fire is a painful to look at, and the puppets are confusing. She doesn’t care for it much. She returns to her fellow prisoners and tries to explain all she had seen, but course they don’t believe her. She even has the audacity to tell them what a book really is, and how you can read important things inside. “You won’t believe it, but the stuff inside is what the book is all about!, she says.
The others didn’t care much for her snooty attitude, or the implication that they don’t know what a friggin’ book is, so they call her “crazy”. Maybe they even call her “dangerous”. She begins to doubt what she had seen with her own eyes.
Now say that this same prisoner, still longing to “fit in”, gets dragged out of the cave against her will. She kicks and screams until she gets dumped on the ground outside. The sun is excruciatingly bright at first, but over time, she is finally able to see the world as it truly is. Sun… trees… reflections on water — at first it blows her disoriented mind, but it is also beautiful and honest, and she wants to tell everyone about it.
She runs back into the cave to tell the other prisoners everything and get them to join her, but she struggles to acclimate herself back to the dark of the cave. The prisoners misinterpret her stumbling as retribution for that weird trip she took to the unknown, and it scares them. It makes them reject her even more. They decide they want nothing to do with this girl and her “journey”. They might just kill her for even talking about it. They’re much more comfortable living in the same old reality they’ve always lived in, thank you very much.
And so it is for all those who trade the comfort of an easy life of conformity for a fool’s journey. They’re not always warmly received at first. Ask Plato’s buddy, Socrates! I am no exception, and I am certainly not alone. Some of my stories will make people uncomfortable, just as all stories make certain people uncomfortable. I’ve curated them over the years and tried to distill them into universal themes that anyone can understand, no matter what part of the world they’re living in.
But prisoners know when they’re trying to be lured out of the cave. Some will deny that they are prisoners at all. I’ve found it less provocative if I focus mostly on stories of my own long incarceration, clinging to my faith in the shadow world. Oh, man — I was the worst!
Stories are powerful stuff. If I have one criticism about this “information age”, it is how storytelling is discounted now as “anecdotal evidence”, and frowned upon in social media settings. Storytellers and pilgrims like me take great umbrage to this. Storytelling has been used and revered for thousands of years before what we now call “modern science”, and it’s only taken one generation to toss it into the garbage heap of hyperbole.
The merits of a story’s value to society barely makes it to the top 10 list as a reason to “green-light” a film or book nowadays. I’ve read countless articles and books about “selling your story”, and the consensus is, “Describe your idea in two sentences, then give us 200 pages of comparative title analysis and proof of your marketability with multi-media platforms and an online following of at least 100,000.” I’m still shaking my head at this, and wondering how many of my most cherished books would have been written at all if they had to take that kind of stuff into account. What’s the demographic for “Animal Farm”? “To Kill A Mockingbird”?
Yet here I am. Trying to draw social media followers to my platform. Like an asshole. I don’t have much of a choice, but I have learned a valuable lesson about how tough it is to get your voice heard. If it’s happening to me, it’s happening to a lot of other people. That’s one of my mantras. Anyone less stubborn than me might have given up by now, but come on! I walked across America. I worked for the railroad for 12 years. It takes a lot more than that to knock me down. As a matter of fact — I relish the challenge. Anything to get my mind off the fact that I am poor and disabled, and my stories are all I really have now.
Anyone who is poor and disabled in this country can agree to the harsh reality those circumstances bring. First of all — the vast majority of people wish you would just die already. It’s true! They’re sick of hearing you ask for help, even if you technically aren’t because you’re way too proud to. They hate how you do nothing but complain about how bad you got it, no matter how bad you got it. We’re obviously just weak and unmotivated. We’re sucking up valuable resources, and causing everyone else’s insurance to jack up. Our miseries make people feel uncomfortable, and people don’t want to feel uncomfortable.
After a while — and it takes longer for some than others — you begin to feel the sting of what it feels like to be discounted. Your privilege means nothing here. Live without appreciation and self-worth long enough, and it can feel like death would be easier for everyone, including us.
You know who can relate to that discomfort of feeling discounted? Everyone. Absolutely everyone! I’ll bet even our new president has thousands of stories of feeling dissed, and guess how that makes him feel? Angry. Just like everyone else. How does it feel to be an environmentalist watching your planet being destroyed for nothing more than greed? Angry. Just like everyone else. How about that blue collar worker, watching herself work way more for less pay while her bosses make 1,000 times what they did 40 years ago? How does it feel to be a rural white guy who can’t open his mouth without being told that his words are irrelevant due to his “white male privilege”? What’s it like to watch unarmed people in your family and community get shot for no reason other than “looking suspicious”? Angry. Just like everyone else. Women in non-traditional industries? LGBT who have been rejected by their families or their community? Anyone who was never given permission to be who they are? Native Americans and First Nations after European settlement? Probably a few of them were angry. Slaves? Prisoners? Christians? Atheists? Religious? Non-religious? Muslim? Non-Muslim? Israeli? Palestinian? Men? Women? Boys? Girls? Guess what — if you’re human, you get angry, too. Just like everyone else.
But wait! I have an idea for a solution! And no — it’s not, “Let’s just all be peaceful!”. I’m not a peaceful person, and neither are you. You can try, but why? How would you ever know you are peaceful if you weren’t intimately aware of your anger? The solution is also not about forcing anyone to accept you – mostly because it tends to have the opposite effect, at least in my case. What we must do is look at “diversity” from a standpoint of power.
Diversity will be my next topic, as I have a lot to say about this “p.c” problem. I still need to find time to do this “comparative title analysis” and come up with a “structured marketing plan”, which should be a fun read. Anyone who knows me can attest that I am terrible at planning, yet I’ve still managed to do some amazing things. (Spoiler alert! It’s because I don’t plan well.)
Come on out of the cave, and good luck out there!