Come out of the cave

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by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D., 10/4/08 • The election this year is about the transformation and renewal of America so she can evolve and continue to lead the world.

As the 2008 election approaches, TCDP is receiving many thoughtful opinion columns about candidates and issues. The Soapbox blog offers a space for local opinion on (mostly) national and world issues, including elections.

Our problems: two wars, a recession, an energy crisis, global climate change, and more are symptoms of philosophies that no longer solve our problems. We need new ideas. Barack Obama represents the potential to transform America. Contrasted with transformation is reform: putting a new façade on an old building–underneath nothing changes. John McCain represents the old structures of exhausted Republican philosophies.

Renewal requires that we see reality as it is. Seeing the dangers of our circumstances is like emerging from the shadows of a cave to see the light of a new vision.

Gareth Morgan’s discussion of Plato’s Cave in his book Images of Organizations illuminates our challenge. This allegory describes what often happens as some see reality as it is and others do not.

The allegory pictures an underground cave with its mouth open toward the light of a blazing fire. Within the cave are people chained so that they cannot move. They can see only the cave wall directly in front of them. This is illuminated by the light of the fire, which throws shadows of people and objects onto the wall. The cave dwellers equate the shadows with reality, naming them, talking about them, and even linking sounds from outside the cave with the movements on the wall. Truth and reality for the prisoners rest in this shadowy world, because they have no knowledge of any other.

However, as Socrates relates, if one of the inhabitants were allowed to leave the cave, he would realize that the shadows are but dark reflections of a more complex reality, and that the knowledge and perceptions of his fellow cave dwellers are distorted and flawed. If he were then to return to the cave, he would never be able to live in the old way, since for him the world would be a very different place. No doubt he would find difficulty in accepting his confinement, and would pity the plight of his fellows.
However, if he were to try and share his new knowledge with them, he would probably be ridiculed for his views. For the cave prisoners, the familiar images of the cave would be much more meaningful than any story about a world they had never seen. Moreover, since the person espousing this new knowledge would now no longer be able to function in the old way, since he would no longer be able to act with conviction in relation to the shadows, his fellow inmates would no doubt view his knowledge as being extremely dangerous. They would probably regard the world outside the cave as a potential source of danger, to be avoided rather than embraced as a source of wisdom and insight. The experience of the person who left the cave could thus actually lead the cave dwellers to tighten their grip on their familiar way of seeing.

The cave stands for the world of appearances and the journey outside stands for the ascent to knowledge. People in everyday life are trapped by illusions, hence the way they understand reality is limited and flawed. By appreciating this, and by making a determined effort to see beyond the superficial, people have an ability to free themselves from imperfect ways of seeing. However, as the allegory suggests, many of us often resist or ridicule efforts at enlightenment, preferring to remain in the dark rather than to risk exposure to a new world and its threat to the old ways.

Will we choose to remain in the dark comfort of the caves we know or will we find the courage to vote for a brighter future for America?

Heuerman, Ph.D. is a change consultant, former U.S. Secret Service agent, & former Star Tribune executive. He lives in Moorhead, MN