Most people are trapped, many unknowingly, in a dank and dingy prison. The walls are high and tattooed with graffiti: names and dates, signs and symbols, etchings made with fingernails, small stones, secreted tools--anything that can be used to leave some signal that we existed, that any one of us, as an individual, was here. We mill around the interior of this prison in droves, often convinced by the sheer numbers of others around us that we surely must be free. I mean...we can't all be in prison. Can we?
No, we aren't all within these walls. But most of us are. Among the inmates you will find the inevitable proselytizers: the loud ones preaching from atop picnic tables, the quiet ones whispering in dark corners, spreading the sibilant message that we belong here, that it's nicccce here. If you're convinced by their words, you come to believe that this institution is, in fact, no dungeon, but instead a hallowed ground. Only the best, most well-behaved among us will be welcomed within these walls. Only good boys and girls end up in this gaol, behind the massive, ornate iron gates above which hangs the sign designating the name of this prison...
Within the bastille of Public Opinion, you will be fed and clothed. You will be offered the care and concern afforded those who follow the rules, who choose to run with the herd. You will be accepted with open arms, given a bed among your fellows, and told you are a decent human being. But you will never be free. The food, the bed, the care and compliments--these are conditional. They are given to you because you are within the walls of the prison, because you are shackled to Public Opinion. Should you raise your voice in protest, should you express a dissenting opinion, should you choose to express individuality beyond the minuscule markings you surreptitiously leave on the walls, you will be exiled.
For many, this exile is worse than the imprisonment itself. To be alone, a singular rebel wandering the sparsely populated land outside the penitentiary walls, is a fate to be avoided at all costs. There is no shame in this. Most of humanity is held within this fortress. There is comfort in the sheer numbers here, in having your basic needs attended to in exchange for your banality. If you listen to the stentorian sounds from the soapbox long enough, you can believe this is Shangri-la, where the beautiful people gather and goodness prevails. If this is your choice and you are comfortable within these walls, you may choose to stay.
This choice is neither right nor wrong; there is no right, no wrong. There are only choices and consequences. If your individuality doesn't tear you apart as it tries to escape its bindings, if you never find yourself pacing at the gates, wanting a life where no acceptance or acquiescence is promised but neither is any expression denied, if you don't feel like your skin will split if you spend One. More. Minute. in this place, then you'll likely find the consequence of staying worthwhile. You'll have plenty of company and will want for very little, save the freedom which may not hold enough value to be missed.
But what of the rest? What of the ones who spend their days pressed against the gates, staring out, buffeted by the whirlwind of a soul restrained, threatening to tear them apart from the inside out? What of the ones who would craft a rope of their own skin if it meant a sure escape, the ones for whom the beds and meals and the comforts of compliance are insufficient?
For all the masses who are content in this densely populated space, there are those who suffer within the walls, who cannot abide by the shared illusion. Even as they are surrounded by the contented majority, these souls feel imprisoned. For these people, the comfort of conformity will never assuage the agony of being separated from authenticity.
While the rest of the inmates mingle in general population, these souls languish in solitary confinement. Their inability to find succor among their peers, to be sustained by the rewards of falling in line, locks them in a tiny cell, alone with nothing but the sound of their stifled truth for company. In their cramped quarters, they feel their individuality draining slowly away, absorbed by the concrete walls and the reliable schedule of prison life. As the lush fluid of their vitality seeps from their pores, it transforms into a choking humidity. Seeping out of the walls, trickling along the floor, this fluid feels like incipient insanity. These individuals are tortured not by guards or chains, electric shock or noise assault, but by the struggle within, by their inability to be satisfied with fitting in and following the rules.
What of these souls, for whom Public Opinion becomes a private prison? For them, nothing short of a prison break will do. And these inmates sense this truth, know in their aching bones that walking away from the institution is the only way to avoid the insanity. But there is a wall made of something far more deterring than stone between them and freedom...
For those who consider flight, there is the wall of fear. There is a distinct and distinctly human agony that visits the ones in solitary confinement. To consider escaping Public Opinion is to invite a specific flavor of terror to permeate your cells. This fear is every bit as real as the urge to flee, to be free from the constraints of society's expectations, roles, and rules. It grows in tandem with the call of authentic truth, expands in equal measure with the highest expression of a soul.
This fear is as much a part of the human animal as binocular vision or a lack of claws. It is part of the social aspect of Homo sapiens, who naturally gather in groups. One of the functions of these groups is to create rules and norms. Without an agreed-upon definition of acceptable and unacceptable, humans struggle to live together. Due to our social nature, we also struggle to live alone. And so we congregate, and wherever we do, we create Public Opinion. It serves a purpose, holds import. But it also has a place, deserves restrictions. When in balance, Public Opinion aids in safer streets, better education, equal access to services. Out of balance, it becomes the prison.
Those who ponder a prison break will inevitably face the fear, the most effective jailor in human history. If you are among the ones who long to wander free, begin by recognizing that the fear is real and natural. The sickening dread that blooms within you, rising with equal speed alongside the elation of freedom, is an expected and inherent aspect of humanity. Until around 10,000 years ago, humans literally depended on one another for physical survival. For the vast majority of human history, to be ousted from the tribe was a likely death sentence. If you lost the approval of your fellow humans, you were just as likely to lose your life. Starvation, exposure, being eaten by predators...these were real threats to human life until just a few hundred generations ago.
Your prefrontal cortex, where high-level thinking takes place, recognizes that the days of saber-tooth tigers are over and public disapproval is not likely to lead to starvation. Your primal brain has no clue. This instinctive bit of your gray matter is focused solely on your survival, and walking out of the prison feels very much like a threat to that objective. When you consider an action that your brain recognizes as likely to create ostracism, on any level (my 4 co-workers might reject me...my entire religious community will leave me), you are triggering an ancient fear.
Cortex --> I may need to quit my job
Primal --> I will die a long, slow, terrifying death
If you choose to leave the prison, know you will experience this fear. This isn't an indication that you should stay in solitary, sinking ever-deeper into your own unraveling. It is merely an instinctual response from a brain designed to keep you alive in a world very different from the one you are living in today. It is normal, natural, and at least to some degree, unavoidable. If you know a prison break is the right move for you, do it scared. Your brain will say you're going to die. You are not. Proceed.
It is only through this fear that escape is possible. The wall of fear must be toppled on the way to freedom. To face this fear is to walk to the gates, where you will realize, at last, that they have never been locked. You've been free to leave all along.
This deep, primal fear, happens any time you consider something your brain perceives as threatening. Many feel it when considering any change, or even when faced with making a minor decision. It's why so many people avoid decisions altogether, to avoid looking into the dark maw of this ancient beast.
But there is also a more conscious, specific fear that holds many of the incarcerated in solitary...judgement. Though there is comfort in being accepted and provided for, there is also comfort in following your heart's call. Many of the prisoners know this, yet they stay within the prison walls for the duration of their lives. It's not the three hots and a cot that keeps them there; it's the fear of being judged that manacles many of the souls who will never attempt to break free.
This is the forebrain's expression of the primal fear, the logical expression of the mammalian need for community. If I listen to this voice inside of me...
If I walk to the gates and push them open...
If I expose the prison for the collective lie that it is...
They will judge me.
My parents, my pastor, my partner, my neighbors. They. They will see what I am doing and they will cast judgement on me.
And indeed, they will. If you want to incite a riot at the prison, walk to the gates and push them open. Show the ones inside that no one is holding them there. A riot of massive proportions will ensue, but the insurrection won't be directed at the prison officials. You will be the target. You will be mobbed by souls swathed in bright orange and vivid terror. They will attempt to drag you back inside and shut the gates as soon as possible. The fastest way to trigger the primal fear in a group is to suggest that there is nothing to be afraid of, to boldly display your individuality in a way that challenges their carefully constructed Public Opinions.
They will most certainly judge you. You already know this; it's why there is fear. But perhaps you haven't considered this little tidbit...they are already judging you. Regardless of how you make your life's choices, someone will find fault. Look no further than the last two years to find examples. If you chose to wear a mask or get a vaccine, you were judged. If you chose to walk around without a mask and pass on the vaccine, you were judged. So it is with all things. Make a lot of money? Judged. Forego wealth? Judged. Working moms are judged, stay-at-home moms are judged. Married people, single people, religious zealots, atheists, introverts, extroverts...all judged.
Sitting in solitary, trying hard to trade your soul's longing for society's approval? You're. Still. Being. Judged. As Kasey Musgraves so perfectly expresses: "you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, so you might as well just do whatever you want."
If you truly like it within the walls, stay. But if you truly want to walk out, by all means, go. Walk through the fear, through the riot, and right out of the gates. Flip Public Opinion the bird on your way out. You won't die. You will be judged. You're being judged anyway. What, in the deepest reaches your heart, feels worthy of verdict and sentence--fitting in, or finding freedom?
Remember, there is no right or wrong answer. There are only choices and consequences, and both belong solely to you, despite what the prison rules may tell you. The fear is real, the judgement is real...but so is the freedom. You won't be alone, on the plains beyond the prison walls. There are other rebels here, others for whom the cost of staying inside was too high to tolerate, who crept from their solitary cells in the dead of the night to face the wall of fear and steal beyond the gates.
It's a smaller tribe out here, but a band of brothers and sisters nonetheless. If you're moldering in solitary, remember this: the doors are unlocked. All that stands between you and freedom is a wall of fear. Walk through it and see what's on the outside. If you don't like it out here, you can always go back. Public Opinion isn't going anywhere, and the door is always open.