My daughter has a pet rat, an engaging little creature named Whiskers, who enjoys riding on her shoulder and hiding under her hair. When Whiskers is not on my daughter’s shoulder, or in his cage, he bumps around the house in his rat ball. This is a sphere of clear plexiglass into which he is inserted by way of a door, and which he can roll in whatever way he pleases by simply attempting to climb its walls.
Watching Whiskers bump around our living room the other day, it occurred to me that much of what we humans call “freedom” is, in fact, the freedom of a rat ball. Like Whiskers, I, for instance, am often left to myself unsupervised. And then I move about with a certain semblance of freedom. But although I am “free” to move about unsupervised, I can never break free of the rat ball.
I am not saying that I am desperately eager to slip away through some crack under the baseboard in order to take up a stealthy and secretive life within the walls. Like Whiskers’, my life is good. But should such an impulse come over me, it is not one to which I could yield. My rat ball won’t pass through cracks.
Escape is not the only thing a rat ball prevents. Whiskers is an engaging fellow, but he is still a rat, and therefore has it in his very nature to gnaw. Gnawing is a rat’s reason for being, his destiny, if you like. And yet there is nothing at all for Whiskers to gnaw inside his rat ball. The concave inner surface of the sphere is impossible to bite, and all those lovely, gnawable chairs, and fabrics, and cords, are absolutely beyond his reach. Indeed, since they can be seen through the ball, I must suppose that poor Whiskers suffers the torments of Tantalus as he bumps around the house.
So, there you have it: life in a rat ball. There is, at first, a superficial experience of freedom. Each of us bumps around the world crying Whoopee! Look at me! I’m free and I’m really going places! But those of us endowed with a brain somewhat larger than that of Whiskers, sooner or later come to feel that there is something rather fishy about this freedom. For every time we think we are about to dive into some inviting crack or sink our teeth into some lovely hunk of wood, we are brought up short, arrested, and constrained.
When this happens, most of us will simply shrug, turn, place our forepaws against a different side of our rat ball, and roll off in another direction. Some of us do this with the expectations that things will be different the next time around.