As the plague recedes, we can emerge from the cave of our isolation. Emerge from the darkness of not being with family and friends, of not attending gatherings, religious or secular, of zooming through life, sometimes alone. We can emerge into the sun of our normal lives, rejoice in its light.
As we do this we might think of Plato’s allegory of the cave where most people live in a cave and watch shadows on a wall which they believe to be true. But real truth exists outside the cave in the bright light of the sun. In this allegory, a person occasionally finds a way out into the sun and returns, but is rejected by those still in the cave.
What if, as we emerge from our cave, we are not coming into the sun’s truth, but are merely moving to a more familiar wall in the cave with its false shadows? Going from the shadows of our isolation to the public shadows that we are taught by our culture to believe are true? Are accepted in our everyday lives? Shadows like consumerism and individualism.
Buy, buy, buy! That’s the false shadow of consumerism. When I mentioned to my philosophy students that consumerism, the spending habits of Americans, makes up 70 percent of our economy, they were surprised. When I then said that in order for this economy to flourish we all have to be conditioned from a very young age to buy constantly, never stop, buy, buy, buy, they were shocked, shocked in disbelief. But the truth is that we are thus conditioned by advertising and our society, our family and friends, to believe that a good life means to constantly discard the old, to desire to buy the new.
New fashions, new trends, new technologies, new labels all seduce us — we have to keep up, discard out-of-date clothes, get that new smart phone, and, yes, stock up on that new cereal brand. The goods we buy are designed to become out of date so that we will always want to get the latest, the fashionable, the coolest. Our current clothes will last, as will our phones and TVs, but we are made to see the shadows of constant consuming as the everlasting truth of life. As the poet William Wordsworth wisely said, “The world is too much with us late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
Me, me, me! That’s the false shadow of individualism, of egoism. Of course we are all to be respected as unique individuals. But false individualism claims that the self is most important above all. In one of my class discussions, a student from Africa, who later transferred to Stanford, said how surprised he was at the great emphasis on individualism in our country. Surprised because in his village the community and its good were considered very important, to be always kept in mind. By contrast, in our cave the shadows of success are all about the individual getting, getting wealth, getting power, getting fame and praise. It’s about the individual’s right to do as he or she wishes, the community and others too often coming in a distant second.
During the plague, the dispute over wearing masks is a good example of this egoism. Those who refuse to wear masks argue that such a requirement is a violation of their freedom as individuals. What they choose to ignore is that wearing a mask is to protect others; somehow, though, the care for others, the love of one’s neighbor, matters less than parading their individualism.
So as we leave the shadows of the pandemic, let us also leave the false shadows of so-called normal life. Let us leave all the shadows of the cave. Let us emerge into the clear sunlight of the truth about what is really important in life: that we care for others, our families, our friends, our neighbors, the strangers who are homeless. That we constantly seek truth and wisdom, even at times to our discomfort. That we appreciate the free gift of nature’s beauty. That we are joyful as we create with others authentic, good, happy lives.
Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.