The Australian psychologist, Dorothy Rowe, who has written extensively on the issue of depression, makes the point that depressed people manufacture prisons for themselves – not to keep themselves in, but to keep the world out.
Whilst this is a phenomenon taken to extremes by depressives, it seems to me that it is something we all indulge in to some extent. Our lives are rendered poorer for all those opportunities we didn’t take, those things we were afraid to try, those dreams that went unfulfilled.
From the viewpoint of the conservatives, however, these might seem decisions that have enabled us to avoid failure and humiliation. But every one of these decisions raises the walls of our prison, limiting our opportunity for exploration and discovery.
Whatever you think about their motives, the world has been enhanced immensely by the like of Christopher Columbus, Vasco Da Gama, and James Cook, who were prepared to risk all in exploration of the physical world.
One of the ground breaking books of the 20th Century was Thomas S Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. He pointed out that challenging the scientific status quo required just as much courage as setting off in to the physical unknown as the famous explorers did. We hold on tenaciously to our scientific paradigms and challenging them requires a tremendous belief and great courage. It is easier indeed to try and rationalise our beliefs to fit the status quo. How much more so for those daring to challenge religious beliefs.
We are culturised into many of our beliefs. We hold them because those significant to us held them. Therefore challenging those beliefs will often put us at odds with those whose approval we need most.
Yet much of what we believe comes to us through historical and cultural accidents. If we had been born in the middle ages we would most likely have believed that the world was flat. If we had been born into a Muslim community then we would most likely have come to believe that Muhammad was a prophet and the Koran reflected the wisdom of Allah. If we had been taught our physics by Newton then Einstein’s theories regarding relativity would have seemed like heresy.
The explorers risked their lives to render a truer geographical understanding of the world. Our scientists risked their reputations (and sometimes their lives as well) to provide a better understanding of the fundamental laws of nature. The mystics challenged conventional understandings of religion (and risked their lives and their reputations too) to make better sense of our spiritual lives.
We confine and limit our understanding of the universe also if we are not prepared to take such risks. Without stepping outside or even challenging the conventional paradigms we might feel a certain passive comfort, but we will never progress human understanding. We are thus secure in our prison. We will then never know the real exhilaration of exploration and any truths we come to will not be our own!