Knowledge freed the prisoner from his worldly prison but only honesty can put out his fires.
I was looking forward to having dinner alone. You become good at it after living alone for long enough, eventually turning what is an otherwise lonely experience into a source of joy. This happens almost out of necessity and is just another way that man adapts to minor stressors in his environment.
Eating dinner alone means putting on a small performance of sorts. You usually sit at the bar and make small talk with the bartender. You order a glass of wine, preferably a big Napa Valley cabernet (when in Rome, as the saying goes). It is normally enough to carry you through the meal but, depending on what you choose to eat, sometimes a second glass is in order. With any luck, at the end of your meal the bartender rewards you for your performance with a glass of port or some other digestif. You don’t even drink port, but who are you to say no? Plus, it is on the house, and this is why you sat at the bar with the other loners and that one couple who is only sitting at the bar because they forgot to make a reservation.
I have found that French restaurants are best for meals alone, especially dinner. They always serve you bread, the meals are portioned generously, and nobody in the restaurant actually gives a shit about you—especially the waiters (this is a good thing as it forces you to not only show up but truly perform). The menus are predictable, the food is high quality, and the specials are variable enough that you can go to the same restaurant over and over again without tiring yourself out.
It had been a few years since I had lived alone, but I knew that I had not lost the ability to put on a performance. In fact, I would put them on all of the time. I viewed it much like breathing, walking, or riding a bike: second nature to me, a purely subconscious activity. I could already taste my well-earned glass of port.
Luisa would head out to a girls-only wine night at a friend’s house (a staple of modern American life for millennial women in their mid-to-late 20s) and I would go have dinner by myself at our neighborhood French restaurant.
We only needed to have a quick call with my parents before leaving. I had a vague feeling that the call was either going to bring very good news or very bad news (anything but the usual, lukewarm, run-of-the-mill news) based solely on the fact that most of the conversations I have with my parents, which happen roughly on a weekly basis, are not scheduled hours in advance.
We started with the usual bit of small talk and catch up, much like what happens when I sit by myself at the bar, except that there was no pending glass of wine to order that also serves to diffuse the tension that builds as you run out of things to talk about with a French bartender who only just recently moved to San Francisco and with whom you have next to nothing in common, if only you stopped faking it for just one second. You have never worked a service job in your life and nobody has ever cared about how late you show up to work. You have never once had to work with your hands or stand on your feet all day and if your back hurts it is only because you did not sit upright in your two thousand dollar office chair for upwards of ten minutes. It is all just a giant, tragic, Oscar-winning performance that you are putting on for a free glass of a semi-dry dessert wine that will help you wash down your crème brûlée. Or maybe you are just a nice person, whatever.
Over FaceTime with your parents there is no relief valve, no where for the rising pressure to escape—the bad news is going to hit you through a 1080p livestream of pixels on the screen of your iPad like a fucking train and there is nothing you can do about it.
Silence fills a room in much the same way that traffic on a highway expands to fill the number of available lanes. The air is dense; despite not a single word said out loud, information is being transferred.
On the couch in the living room of a charming and quaint 650 square foot Victorian in San Francisco, packets bursting with emotion are being slung silently from one human brain to another, occasionally getting dropped and shattering all over the coffee table never to be recovered.
At a high enough fidelity, emotions are too rich to be run through the slow and lossy compression algorithm that we call language. Of the 7000+ total languages spoken in the world today, not a single one has been able to solve this problem. It remains true that, often times, communication without words, dead silence, is the only method that suffices. With silence we sacrifice the guarantee that someone else might fully understand what we are feeling for the sake of speed, efficiency, and overall richness of emotion.
It is no coincidence that this same trade-off manifested itself in the design of the internet. Communication between nodes in a network can either be connection-oriented, allowing for certain guarantees to be made like the stable ordering of packets and the recovery of lost information, or it can be connectionless, trading off accuracy and reliability in favor of speed and the notion of on-time arrival.
The appropriate trade-off depends solely on the use-case. Downloading a file, for example, depends on the stable ordering of packets so that the final result can be accurately stitch together. A FaceTime call, on the other hand, requires sacrificing all other concerns on the altar of speed—packets can be dropped on a whim because the next one should be arriving at any moment now and we are experience this, living it, right now in realtime.
Luisa and I stood up from the couch, practically silent, and headed out the door for dinner. No words needed to be said, I would not be having dinner alone tonight.
Sadness has a kind of weight to it. It is heavy. This quality first surfaces itself in the physical world as a lack of motivation, an emotional inertia of sorts. Like a virus, sadness left unattended eventually begins to replicate and multiply, quickly evolving from a mere lack of motivation into a more tangible sense of fear. Like a fever, this fear can persist at a very low-grade, existing seemingly imperceptibly until it reaches more advanced stages of development. This omnipresent fear is commonly referred to as anxiety. In its fully metastasized form, akin to the relentless and uncontrolled growth of cancerous cells in humans and other animals, it is called depression.
Sadness takes even the most menial and rote of human experiences, like eating and reading, and imbues them with a profound sense of difficulty and a generally muted tone. Meals alone when sad take on a different character: flavor is subdued and chewing your food becomes a Sisyphean endeavor. Even silverware begins to feel markedly less functional, or perhaps it is just the lack of the motivation required to use any tool effectively. It is terribly difficult to read when sad (except for maybe a handful of Joan Didion’s essays), possibly another example of this same lack of motivation that is often taken for granted.
This emotional inertia and pervasive, low-grade fear is enough to close the curtain on what is usually an exciting performance. There is no looking forward to a glass of port, instead you ask for the check well before you have taken your last bite.
You are pulled off of the stage and into your own head. Conversation is generally avoided in an attempt to conceal any and all evidence of an abnormal state of being. Desperate attempts are made to fill new and unusual voids that you now find inside of yourself. These attempts begin immediately—I remember sitting quietly in the 6:30pm silence on the couch in my living room, unlocking my phone, and opening Slack.
Deep within the most influential philosophical work in all of human history, Plato’s Republic, lies one of philosophy’s most beloved and famed analogies: Plato’s Cave.
Scholarly debate on the significance of the Cave has historically been focused on two interpretations: the epistemological one and the political one, respectively. The cave is either a story about man’s search for knowledge (the enlightenment of the philosopher and the ignorance of the ordinary man) or it is about man’s prevailing political condition (doctrines imposed by the state).
What the scholarly debate misses about the Cave, however, is that it is also a story about fear, honesty, and, as a result, sadness. Academics have a tendency to operate at a higher plane of consciousness dictated by rationality, often forgetting what it is like to be a human being (a fundamentally irrational creature). When Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”, he forgot to consider what it means to feel. Perhaps he should have said sentio, ergo sum.
Upon being freed from his chains, the prisoner first struggles to look at the light of the fire at the mouth of the cave behind him—the source of his shadowed reality, the only reality he has ever known:
And if he were made to look directly at the light of the fire, it would hurt his eyes and he would turn back and retreat to the things which he could see properly, which he would think really clearer than the things being shown him.
The prisoner does not leave the cave by his own doing. Instead, he is forcibly dragged out and not let go until the sunlight is blinding his eyes:
…the process would be a painful one, to which he would much object, and when he emerged into the light his eyes would be so dazzled by the glare of it that he wouldn’t be able to see a single one of the things he was now told were real.
The now-freed prisoner gradually works his way up to a fuller understanding of reality, first through the shadows and the reflections of men and other objects in the water, eventually looking directly at the objects themselves. At night, he looks at the heavenly bodies and the stars in the sky, the “light of the moon and stars rather than at the sun and its light by day.”
Finally, he is able to look directly at the sun itself. He arrives at the conclusion that “it is the sun that produces the changing seasons and years and controls everything in the visible world, and is in a sense responsible for everything that he and his fellow-prisoners used to see.”
The prisoner looks at his newfound freedom and eventually realizes that he is not yet free: there are fires and caves and shadows within him. Knowledge freed the prisoner from his worldly prison but only honesty can put out his fires.