The Prisons We Construct For Ourselves

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!

9 Replies to “The Prisons We Construct For Ourselves”

  1. In my mind this raises another issue called ‘Faith’. Faith can be a double edge sword. It seems you need to have some in order to move forward on your spiritual journey but it is also used as a convenient way to stop people looking at alternatives to their existing practices (religion in particular) and certainly inhibits any paradigm shift.

    I despise any system that requires me not to question (to have faith) which pretty much excludes me from any of the established religions. I am fortunately not burdened by the weight of fear that often accompanies established religions as I did not have this “educational process” as a child. As a result I do not have to risk an eternity of hell in order to explore alternatives. For those with this fear firmly established it must take enormous courage to explore alternatives.

    My bottom line then I guess is we are not all equal when it comes to being open minded (our prisons are all of different construction often based on someone else’s design). For some, to bust out and explore is a grand adventure, for others it is to risk eternal misery. It is this latter group that are the truly courageous. To make any real change in the world we should perhaps teach our young how be courageous and to challenge the status quo rather than to burden them with fears to drive them in to conformance to accepted norms of the day.

  2. Faith is situational, and I have no doubt that the “faith” I thought I had growing up in a religious home and school environment was a simple product of my environment. For me it was ultimately important to reject this learned behaviour and start again from scratch. That said, my mother finds great comfort in her faith and while I speak openly with her about my views, it is right that she makes her own way.

    So, for me accepting the proposition that many beliefs are cultural and historical accidents is straight forward.

    The difficulty for me, and perhaps others, is recognising in ourselves those deeply held beliefs that limit our ability to develop as individuals and as a people.

    For example, population growth remains an “elephant in the middle of the room”. We live in a finite space with little prospect of moving on and yet religion, economics, xenophobia and animal instinct is driving us towards an overcrowded world filled with envy and privation.

    This is our prison in every sense of the word. Incapable of separating ourselves from the paradigms that drive our world:
    – We must procreate to ensure our survival – surely no one’s really worried about that anymore?
    – It is the inalienable right of every person to procreate – why?
    – Economic growth as measured by increased productivity is the best measure of progress – why not social growth or environmental health?
    – Human beings matter as a species

    Recent images from deep space captured by the Hubble telescope have revealed a truly infinite universe filled with BILLIONS of galaxies like our own. What extraordinary hubris to think that we are alone, that we are special and that our survival is more important than anyone else’s. How surprising it might be to have some aliens turn up one day claiming ownership of this planet and being both surprised and disappointed with the human infestation that’s taken over while they were away.

    We are sentient, partially evolved beings clinging to the cooling crust of an insignificant speck circling an unremarkable star in a regular galaxy in an infinite universe. Believe what you like, it’s unlikely to make a difference!

  3. Sorry Ted, got off the topic and onto my soap box.

    At a personal level, I am imprisoned by fear. Irrational, misguided, yet ever present. Ironically it seems easier to unbundle religion than to peel the endless onion of expectation that I live in.

    A wise man said that we have only one choice; to act out of love or fear. Understanding why fear is more powerful (or natural) than love would provide some keys.

  4. Great comment Bruno, thanks. In my previous comment I suggested that learned behaviours and fears (faith mentioned in particular) is a prison wall some of us live behind. You rightly point out I think that not all of these prisons are detrimental to the individual or society.

    I particularly like your reference to how we measure success as a society. I was only chatting with Ted this morning about how much more materially wealthy we are yet how less happy we have become in the past few decades. I wonder if the net happiness of a society is a more valuable measure of success than GDP. Not easy to measure though and it seems to go against most of our instincts.

    One of the problems seems to be that although everyone wants happiness they don’t know what it is that makes them happy. We wish people starting out in their adult lives “Wealth, Health and Happiness” as if these things are necessary to be happy. We also have as one of our greatest virtues a “hard work” ethic and as a species we are fiercely competitive (why do we measure world records to a millisecond). All these attributes have served us well in our evolutionary survival however they are no longer as necessary as they were and are now even potentially harmful.

    The genetic component created by our evolutionary past is I believe a huge influence here and it will be very difficult for society to address. We are prisoners of our own genetic makeup. Our consciousness and intellectual reasoning can give us a glimpse of what should be but in the end it is our base instincts that still control most of us most of the time. It will take a huge threat to our survival to break down some of these prison walls.

  5. No need for apologies Bruno – your comments were insightful and valuable.

    Your comments about love and fear are particularly pertinent. It seems to me that when consciousness evolved it was useful, in an evolutionary sense, because it aided physical survival. IN recent times most of us are not exposed to immediate threats to our survival. Consequently the greatest armament we have at our disposal, consciousness, has been diverted from the problem of physical survival to the more trivial issue of ego defense (psychic survival).

    Hence to go back to my metaphor of prisons, the prisons we now construct are not about preserving us from physical harm but shielding our fragile egos from challenge.

    Hence the value of the love response – it accepts us as we are! If I respond to you in fear it is normally your self-concept I attack first.

  6. Hello All,

    I have enjoyed reading the above debate, it’s nice to find open, and educated discussions on the esoteric topics Ted presents. I certainly agree with Bruno about the humbling experience of viewing the Universe through the eyes of Hubble.

    In regards to the measure of a Society and the value of some of our outmoded evoluntionary defenses, I wonder whether collectively we are enlightened enough to take what I believe is an essential next step. Certainly the ego survival/defense mechanisms we all use have been culturally ingrained from an early age and are reinforced in schools and workplaces everywhere. Society seems besotted with celebrity and winners and as Greg commented is a millisecond or two worth a distinction for any competitor.

    When people and edifices are rasied above their “real” worth then the prison walls are even more necessary for ego salvation. The former Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon must have an incredible ego ( and other character defects ) to feel he can jutify and accept the enormous financial trophy he has been awarded. The abolition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty I believe should be the next frontier for social evolution. It might even provide health and happiness benifits for individuals and the planet as well.

  7. You have to be careful with the degree in which you challenge beliefs. It leads to ad infinitum or essentially nothingness which is unlikely to result in happiness. To illustrate my point: If you wipe the slate clean you still have to believe in something. Decartes “i think, therefore i am” has to believe that he can think.

    Beliefs help to provide something to anchor reason and matter to that which we don’t understand. From here ideology creates the social structure in which we live. You don’t want to become too alienated.

  8. No doubt Matt, that any well-adjusted, robust person must have some underpinning beliefs. The point that I was trying to make in the beginning was that many of our so-called beliefs are not beliefs at all but convenient traditions we take on from significant others, from our cultures and from our religions without ever questioning them. They are not our beliefs at all, but facades we adopt thoughtlessly in order to assuage our needs to belong.

  9. Bruce, your comments regarding the issues of income distribution in societies are supported by the findings of a recent book “The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. It is worth a read!

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