Problem: How do we overcome obstacles in life without the knowledge, skills, or resources to do so? What should we do when we don't know what to do?
Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption and Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo were both imprisoned for years, isolated from the world they knew, deprived of the resources and opportunities that would have allowed them to step beyond their discontent. These heroes are a meaningful segue between the wholly fatalistic tale of Sisyphus and the seemingly unstructured plights that you and I live daily. But their plights are not so different from our own, speaking more to a difference in degree, than a difference in kind.
The Prison Problem, which I considered dubbing the Options Problem, is one of tightly defined social constraint (too few options to choose from). A prison has limited access to upward mobility in life – finances, networks, opportunities – that you and I could, in theory, access through social media, direct contacts, the Internet, or effort outside of caged walls. Despite that, many of us, myself included from time to time, have the mental outlook of a caged prisoner, lost without a cause, hopeless, uncertain how to trigger momentum. ‘I don't know what to do... nothing is going my way.’
Dantès, more than Dufresne, followed the Weightlessness method of transformation, first cultivating a body that could fight and a mind capable of deep awareness, insight, and reason, lying in wait for the opportunity to escape and implement the higher level of mind-body performance cultivated in the shadows of confinement. But both of them, with or without mind-body training, looked at their narrow worlds as Camus charged us to look at Sisyphus – every crack and crevice and protrusion of the boulder, his connection to the rock that molded him into its equal, his embodied effort, and the vast expanse and limitless sunset he’d witness in peace as he strolled back down the hill without burden toward the boulder he’d fought to elevate.
Dantès and Dufresne owned their environments, plotting, planning, mastering every corner and crevice of their cells, accumulating resources along the way, monetary, educational, or tactical, that would allow them to escape their confinement and conquer the world beyond, when the time was right.
And herein lies two important lessons.
The first is the power of perspective. Are you optimizing the resources at your current disposal? Or are you undervaluing what you have before you, and overvaluing things beyond your current reach? For it’s quite possible that until you learn to master your current cell, that tools and resources that lie beyond will be just as useless until possessed by a fighter who knows how to survive with the bare minimum. A warrior who cannot use his fists should not be given a sword.
The second lesson is that options ARE required to conquer suffocating circumstances. Positive thinking alone does not free a prisoner from his prison, though that may be step one. One must be willing to align every possible option, with or without complete knowledge of how options will play out.
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