Return to Plato’s cave

Wayang kulit (Indonesian shadow puppetry) Source:

It’s possible I never left it. This place that Plato has Socrates describe so cogently in his Republic.

This place with prisoners shackled to a cave wall from childhood, with no choice but to look straight ahead. To them, the shadows thrown by objects on the wall opposite are the only reality they know. Their world is one of blurred forms that leap, tower and shrink without warning.

And even if one prisoner was somehow freed and finally able to turn around, says Socrates: the flash of the fire would make it impossible for him to see the objects of which he had earlier seen the shadows.

Neighbourhood drunk

Emerging from the pedestrian subway the other day, I glimpsed our resident drunk swaying in the doorway of a money lending shop. He was wearing his trademark shades and salt-and-pepper beard. His guitar was propped up against one of the shop windows.

His jeans were surprisingly clean. I don’t know why I’m always surprised by this – his clothes are usually clean whenever I see him, suggesting a warm home and someone looking out for him. I suspect my surprise is not so much that his clothes are clean, but that there is still someone back home fretting over him while he’s out, and patiently caring for him when he returns.

This man, who has occasionally exchanged glances with me and once (to my horror) attempted to touch fists with Rosie, is someone I have grown to hate. I know nothing about him. But he only has to lurch into view for revulsion to come tumbling coldly from my throat.

I never say anything to him. There is just the usual shrinking away, the tensing jaw, the hateful thoughts that puff forth like fungal spores (He’s useless. He’s pathetic. He does nothing all day. I feel sorry for his wife or girlfriend or whoever. Why hasn’t he been run over yet?).

Savage projections

I’m not proud of feeling this way. This is what I told my counsellor last week – that I wish I could find some compassion for this man, instead of fury. I couldn’t understand why I felt so strongly about him, in particular. I’m repulsed by most drunks, but this man – let’s call him Beard – sends me into paroxysms.

She said something she’s often said – that I may never relinquish these vestiges of rage. That I may never get over the antipathy I feel for alcohol addiction. Then she suggested I might be projecting my anxieties and disappointments – all the unexpressed frustrations I would otherwise have directed at Ben when he was still drinking – at Beard.

As obvious as it may seem, it had never occurred to me before. She was right.

It is my anger – rooted as deeply and viscerally as the sting inside a bee – that chains
me to the wall, preventing me from seeing Beard for who he is. Instead, I see his shadow – the alcoholism – which now dwarfs him and defines him.

I understand. But even as I am able at this moment to turn my head towards the light, I still don’t see. Not yet, anyway.

And now a word from our sponsors

Ok, not sponsors. I’ve been asked to help a graduate student out with research that, in her own words: focuses on the spouse’s role in a person’s decision to seek help for alcohol use issues. The study is designed for married couples for whom alcohol use is an area of disagreement in their marriage, and is intended for people at all levels of alcohol intake. The study is fully approved by my university [Clark University, Worcester, MA, USA].

I’m told there are some giftcards for a few lucky participants. 


Are you and your spouse legally married and at least 18 years of age?

Do you or your partner currently consume alcoholic beverages at least once a month?

Is alcohol use an area of disagreement in your marriage?

If you answered yes to the above questions, you and your spouse are eligible to participate in a research survey regarding the relationship between your marriage and your alcohol-related help seeking behaviors. When you both complete the survey, you will each be entered into a raffle for one of four $50 gift cards!

The survey will take each participant approximately 20 minutes, and survey responses will be anonymous.

This study has been approved by the Clark Committee for the Rights of Human Participants in Research and Training Programs (IRB). Any questions about human rights issues should be directed to the IRB Chair, Dr. James P. Elliott, The study is being conducted by C.J. Fleming, M.A. and James Cordova, Ph.D. in the Psychology Department at Clark University. Please feel free to contact the researcher ( ) or the research supervisor ( ) with any questions or concerns.


6 thoughts on “Return to Plato’s cave

  1. Years ago, I felt only fright or disgust for drunks who were open and out there. My higher power has thankfully taken this feeling from me. I know we are all God’s children and are deserving of respect. I don’t blame you for being disgusted by this person; it is quite normal I think. I pray that you keep to your own recovery and find the God of your understanding. S/He will give you a peace you will not believe. Blessings, Joanne

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