top of page

Self-imposed Chains - Carmen Machado

How familiar are you with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? If you’re not, picture a dark cave with chained prisoners inside. They’re facing toward the back of the cave and unable to look backwards or outside. There is a fire behind the prisoners that burns bright. Because of the fire’s flickering light the prisoners can only see shadows on the wall in front of them as animals pass by from time to time. Faint shadows of nature like trees that are near the cave change as the sun rises and descends outside the cave. The prisoners have been in this environment their entire lives and can only see the shadows on the wall. They know nothing of the outside world. The hazy shadows and chains are their norm – their reality. If we asked them to describe the sun, what would they say? If we asked them to describe the colors of nature, what would they say? How much do they know about life as they observe obscure shadows that mask important details? How limited is their perspective? They’ve never seen any of these things. Yet amongst themselves they would have much to think and say. Amongst themselves they can makeup and label whatever shadow they see. They can agree and solidify what they know. Amongst themselves they would have created a reality that for them, is real. This environment is all they know, and therefore, they are a product of their environment. Their reality is dark, bleak, and lifeless, but have no idea because there is so much they’ve never seen outside the cave.

One day, one of the prisoners is able to break free; he is curious and begins to explore the cave. Following the light, he decides to walk beyond the cave for the first time. The sun blinds him. As his eyes adjust, he begins to make sense of the world beyond the cave. As time passes by everything is brighter, filled with color and infinite details. He has endless questions. Some people ignored him, but others were willing to answer. Obscure forms now had clear features. He added names to what he heard and saw. A new reality could now replace an old reality as he interacts with new people and environments. With excitement he then decides to go back to the cave to tell his lifelong companions about the birds, the sun, and the radiant colors of nature. He used new words to describe places and things that were unimaginable to the prisoners. The prisoners are confused. They deemed him crazy and ignored what he had to say. They’ve accepted that the outside world made their friend say and imagine foolish things. Even when unchained, I can imagine the man’s friends being fearful of going beyond the cave because they may also go insane.

I could imagine the man pleading to his friends to go outside to experience everything for themselves, but how can they relate to the new language that described something they've never seen? They are afraid of what they don't know. The cave is their home – their comfort zone. For them their limitations were their chains, but not the cave itself. To them, freedom came when the chains came off. Walking around within the cave without chains would be major progress for them while not realizing that the cave was just as limiting. It was all that they've known their entire lives. What they've known could be good enough when compared to an unknown and seemingly scary reality waiting beyond the cave. Now there are two realities. One reality belongs to the group and the other belongs to the person who explored beyond the cave. Whose reality is real? I’d say both realities are very real, especially because it was the only one they could see. The group couldn't move forward because of fear, and the man could never unlearn what he knew to be true once he was exposed to experiences that taught him something better, different, and new.

This story deeply intrigued me because I can relate to the man and the prisoners. For me the cave was my home. My home was my comfort zone and I didn't know much beyond those walls. Of course, I lived in the outside world seeing more than shadows, yet everything was still a blur. I had many friends, a supportive family, and went to school, yet everything was still fuzzy. This is what I mean. What did I actually learn in high school? As a senior who was close to graduation I didn't know how to answer that question. I took stacks of notes in class, but what were they really for? How do I apply what I learned in the real world? I had no clue! What do I want to be when I grow up? I didn't know. What will my major be in college? I had an idea, but could not decide! What will life look like after high school? Again, I had no idea. How does being an adult work? Looking back, I think that life after high school in the real world was a scary thought. I was so afraid of becoming an adult. Applying to college was also a scary thought because I had so many doubts. Like I said, I saw the world, but much of it was blurry – like shadows. I was a product of my environment and didn't know how to pay attention to the right people and places that would expose me to important details. I could see some of my friends figuring out life after high school, but I didn't know how to do that for myself. I didn't know how to ask for help from the right people and places. My chains were self-imposed, but I couldn’t see or feel them. They kept me in my comfort zones like the prisoners in the cave.

The story made perfect sense to me. I was in my own world. I typically went to school then went home. My perspectives came from family, a small circle of friends, and a few good teachers, but that wasn't enough. When I was in high school, I saw others focus on college and life after college, but did not understand how to get to the important detail. I decided to focus on working after high school, but that was a mistake. The idea was to find myself and learn about career options, but everything was still blurry because I was still looking in the wrong places and talking to the wrong people. After six years, I simply fell into new comfort zones that were about mediocre jobs and paying bills. I still didn't feel prepared for life or the real world. We only know what we see and hear. Growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I could only think of careers such as becoming a doctor, police officers, or teacher. Why? It was what I was exposed to at home and was what I saw on TV. I had great parents, but they couldn’t provide much college guidance because they never went to college.

My chains and the cave, both of which I couldn’t see, kept me from exploring new experiences and new perspectives. What I took from the story was that I didn’t see, ask, hear, or do enough in high school. I wasn’t making sense of everything for myself. I realize that physical maturity or growth is automatic, but not in our minds. Clarity in our minds comes from asking important questions, overcoming doubts, and seeking out new experiences. We all have small and major life goals, but most many go unachieved. Why? In my case, fear of becoming an adult and lack of experiences beyond my environment were what were limiting my beliefs and reality. And isn’t our mind what lead to our attitudes, decisions and actions? Our experiences influence our thoughts in every way. Then our thoughts determine what we believe in, what is impossible, and possible. This is where confidence comes from. Our thoughts become our reality. Every single one of us is the product of our environment, which means that exploring endlessly among the right people and the right places is the only way to have a clear reality that is life and our futures.

It took me a while, but I’ve learned to explore beyond my cave. No more chains. How? I’ve learned to ask for help, ask questions, and seek new experiences. I’ve learned to express my doubts, wants, and curiosities. As the saying goes “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” All of this has meant refocusing as a college student and overcoming my fears. I started with simple things like paying attention to opportunities such as becoming part of campus orgs and learning about research. These are the right people and places. I’ve met inspiring students and professors that have exposed me to environments that I would have never discovered on my own. So much has changed for me as a result of expanding my reality and breaking away from self-imposed chains. For instance, I’m learning how to do scientific research. I never understood how it worked, but research is interesting and exciting. I’m studying how long term exposure of virtual reality affects the human body. Yes, virtual reality! If someone would have told me a few years ago that I would be learning this I would have thought that they were insane. I’ve also connected with mentors that are helping me answer questions about life, school, and career options. I’m also volunteering for projects that align with what I care about, such as Latino Community Stage. I’m done with a BA degree in Psychology and already planning for a master’s degree in Human Factors. I now understand important details that are giving me direction and major ambition. I no longer fear adult life! And I feel like I’m just getting started. I now create and seek out new environments, which give me a sense of freedom. Now I understand that our paths and realities are ours to create.

bottom of page