A Castle or a Prison?

by rthieme on March 25, 1998

What’s the difference, asked a reader, between a castle and a prison? Supposedly castles keep bad guys out and prisons keep bad guys in. Prisoners can’t leave, and castle-dwellers are trapped. So who’s who?

The gatekeeper of both castles and prisons is fear, and fear, generated by radical change, is all around us.

In the digital world, we traffic in symbols. You’d think that makes it easier to see that the wizard behind the curtain, weaving fearful scenarios, is ourselves, grown-up children scaring themselves with ghost stories. But we glom onto those symbols so quickly, believing the images or text that flows across our monitors without really thinking.

Attachment to symbols that generate fear confuses humans. We inherited fear for good reasons. In the old days, things were exactly what they seemed. A bear was a bear. Fight or flight was the right response. Today, it’s more likely to be a digital bear, a cartoon bear that someone invented.

When I lived on Maui, I captured reef fish for a home aquarium. One fish – a moorish idol – was too fast to catch, so I hovered over the coral, watching. I learned that when a moorish idol takes refuge in a coral head and becomes frightened, it always flees at the same angle. So I held a net at that angle and the fish swam into the net.

Took all the fun out of it.

When people are afraid, their behavior is automatic, predictable. We know how they’ll vote and spend money. Maybe that’s why our spiritual traditions provide tools for transforming fear. Buddhists learn to detach from it, Christians to cast it out through love.

Castles and prisons are indistinguishable. Humankind can not bear too much freedom. Hence, recidivism – prisoners returning in droves to their cells to paint imaginary windows on the walls, filled with imaginary clouds.

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