The most potent prison is the one where the prisoner doesn’t even realize they’re in it. It’s relatively rare for a prison to be a room with bars on it. Much more often, a prison is constructed out of our fears, routines, and culture. In my life, I find that I’ve build all kinds of patterns of thought that put artificial limits on what I do, with no good reason for them. These are common prisons in my life:
- I can’t write a letter to my friend right now, because I don’t have time to write it by hand.
- I can’t go hiking today because it’s supposed to rain.
- I can’t start that project because I need this thing before I can start.
- I can’t go to the thing, because I need to work.
- I can’t start writing because I haven’t finished the outline.
- I can’t code this program because I haven’t decided how I’m going to deploy it.
Every one of those is wrong, but far too often they go unchallenged in my brain. I have literally waited years to do somethings because of flawed reasoning like the above.
As I’ve grown older and more skeptical, it’s very useful to constantly “is that true?” There is this idea that you should “question everything,” but I we tend to be too limited in what we include in “everything.” We tend to think that “question everything” is limited to a domain like religion or politics or perhaps business. But I think it’s most useful in the more mundane and more personal.
When I first moved into an apartment with a dishwasher, I was very happy because I hated doing dishes. The reality turned out to be different. I would wait to run the dishwasher until it was full, which might be a few days since I live by myself. Then it would sit full for a few days, and more dishes stacked up. This lasted for years through multiple apartments, until one day I realized my life would be much easier if I just washed my dishes after I used them. It just hadn’t occurred to me to question my dish washing practices, but once I did, I was able to relieve a lot of pain in my life. I haven’t run a dishwasher in years, and my kitchen is better maintained than it has ever been before.
It might seem weird to call these things “prisons.” I think of it as being captive to thought patterns, cultures, or customs that are causing you pain that you tolerate because you don’t realize that there might be a different way.
I read a few years ago, though I don’t remember the source and can’t find it now, that the first step to escaping from prison is to recognize when you are in one. I’m now constantly on the lookout for things that are causing me irritation or pain. Then I question the assumptions of whatever it is. I ask myself: what are the things about this I actually have control over. And then I break out of the place I had been.