October 17, 2011
In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” people are chained together, facing a cave wall their entire lives, forced to look at the wall as a fire rages behind them. Shadows of other people walking between the fire and the chained people are cast upon the wall. The chained people have only one point of view: they remark on the shadows, they interpret the shadows, they are even entertained by the shadows. But the shadows are their only reality. The chained people are prisoners — literally, because they’re chained — but also intellectually and spiritually because all they know is the projection of the shadows. They’ve no idea what’s actually behind them.
The allegory then supposes one of the prisoners is freed. And she’s thunderstruck by what reality actually is: the shadows and sounds bouncing off the wall aren’t real, but are projections caused by the fire in a huge cave. What’s more, there’s a way out of the cave, into the world, into the light of the sun, as doubly awe-inspiring as the fire. Her reality is completely and forever altered.
She can never truly go back to the cave, knowing what she knows now. What a limited worldview she and the other prisoners had known before being awakened to the light of knowledge by the fire and the sun!
I offer an obvious recovery analogy for the allegory: once freed from the misinformation that I would always be in active addiction, it is difficult, painful even, to go back to the cave. And go back some of us do; I’ve had my slips. But I know better. I know healthier. And I know that I feel better when I don’t go back to the cave wall for my short-lived thrills and ephemeral jollies.
Someone else wrote* about the allegory that often times “people prefer their accustomed bondage to a painful and uncertain liberation. The point of the allegory is that we, in our accustomed state, see only a vague reflection of reality, and we do not choose to be free of our illusions.”
With a program of recovery, with the support of loved ones and sponsors and fellows, with the engagement of the God of our understanding, we can choose to be free of our illusions. We can choose sobriety, serenity, and peace. It is not easy. And the liberation, I know myself, in my day-to-day challenges with my wife, my co-workers, my school work, is sometimes very painful.
But is it more painful than going back to the cave wall — and pretending I didn’t see the fire of acceptance, the sunlight of recovery? I don’t think so.
*Tyson, Joseph B. The New Testament and Early Christianity, Pearson, 1984.