The Matryoshka Cage

10 March 2012. Filed under category Life.
Matryoshka Ninjas!

Matryoshka Ninjas!

Today is my birthday and it is therefore exactly one year since I crossed the Rubicon and announced to my family, friends and work that I was leaving London to become a nomad. My travels are all about personal growth, and so it feels right to dedicate my birthday post to exactly that.

Reflecting on the personal growth I’ve had over the years, I see a distinct pattern. My growth has not been slow and steady; it has been a series of explosive bursts. One such burst came when I moved to London. I became a new man in those first few years. I remember feeling like I had just been released from a cage that I had not known I was in, and suddenly I had space to spread my wings and explore a whole new life.

The cages we carry.

The cages we carry.

I felt the same way when I left London and became a nomad. London had been a bigger cage, but a cage nonetheless. It took longer to grow enough that it became a limitation, but now that I walk the open roads, I recognize that London had held me back. The explosion of new experiences and life lessons I’ve had since I became a nomad proves that.

These and similar events make me to think of personal growth as the breaking through of a series of nested cages, one within the other, like a Russian Matryoshka doll. For each such cage, we go through three phases.

In the first phase, we have plenty of room within our cage. We are free to live and grow within the boundaries of our cage, which may be so large that we don’t even recognize that it is there. As we explore our cage, our lives expand to fill the room within.

The second phase comes when we have grown so much such that the confines of our cage become a problem. There are parts of life that we want to experience and areas of growth that we long for, but the cage holds us back. Our wings are pressed against the bars of the cage, and there is no room for us to grow. We have outgrown our old life, like a snake ready to shed its skin.

We must find the strength to break free or live a life too small.

We must find the strength to break free or live a life too small.

The second phase is both frustrating and painful, but it also necessary. It is in this phase, pressed against the bars of our prison, that we truly get to know the things that hold us back. Without knowing the nature of our cage, we won’t know how to tear it down. The pain and frustration also act as motivation. It is frightening to leave the safety of the known and brave the fear of the unknown, and we need the pain and the frustration to push us out of our comfort zone.

The third phase is short and explosive. This is where we burst through the cage and suddenly find ourselves free to spread our wings and fly again. For a few days or months, we ride strange new winds to exciting heights and places. It is a thrilling time of exploration and growth. Eventually we adapt to the new cage and we start the whole process over again, now in a larger cage.

However, there are risks involved with personal growth. The main danger in the third phase is that we might not be able to handle what is beyond the cage, or we can’t handle the speed with which we are released into the new life. For example, I’ve seen plenty of people be swept away by the London clubbing scene and end up in really bad places, doing things they cannot handle. It is as if they damage their wings when they break out of their cage. Broken, they fall and fall, seeing their old cage vanish above as they rush towards the bottom.

The second phase is dangerous only if we get stuck in it. We need to feel the pain and frustration of the cage to motivate us to break through it, but some people never build enough strength to do so. Then the pain and frustration become lifelong torments, and the person is doomed to sit deformed and stumped by the shape of his cage.

There are no real risks inherent in the first phase. We know the world within our cage, and it is big enough to be happy. But we often don’t have a choice of staying in this phase. If we are meant for greater things and if there is yet more growth left in us, it will come and we cannot and should not stop it. If the cages we build for ourselves are too small, then we will eventually grow into the second phase, and we must escape those cages, no matter how hard it is.

There are many sorts of cages. Most are self-made, and those we can tear down ourselves. The fear of rejection, for example, may hold us back from coming out as gay. Some cages are imposed on us by other people, like a controlling partner. These can usually be dealt with, but it can be very painful. Finally, some cages are simply impossible to break out of, such as an incurable medical condition. For those cages, learning to live with them and accept them as they are is better than to rage against them and beat yourself bloody against their walls.

Personally, I am currently in the first phase. The rush of excitement of the third phase, when I first hit the road, has subsided. My travels are still exciting, but I’ve broken in my nomadic boots and I feel in control. I think I am a long way from hitting the second phase. The world seems impossibly large at the moment; yet I know that somewhere out there, there will be another cage. I just don’t know the shape of it yet.

Travel Updates

Leaving Switzerland, I spent a week in London, desperately trying to see everyone I know there. I’m sorry if I missed you! Now I am in Long Beach with Don Kendrick, enjoying the Californian hospitality before I fly to Buenos Aires on 13 March.

I celebrated my birthday at a gay country western bar (Oil Can Harry’s) in Los Angeles together with Don, Jim and a whole bunch of other cowboys. I danced two-stepping until closing time and had the best time! More about that in the next blog post, but if you don’t want to wait, then click here for a preview picture!


Do you know your cage?

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  1. Jack says:

    I am very proud of you. Please try to not come back in London. Enjoy your freedom.
    Once again happy birthday new born


  2. Steve says:

    Enjoy Buenos Aires. I make my first trip to Stockholm and second to London next week. On my own journey

  3. J. says:

    The dilemma is whether to stay root-bound in a pot too small or risk the lack of nourishment in a pot too big. (All these analogies are giving me a headache…)Happy birthday!

  4. Doug Burns says:

    Happy (belated) Birthday, mate.

    Just got back from Dallas. Not too many gay cowboys, but a tone of Oracle geeks.

    1. Robby says:

      Oh not true. They must have all been out on the range or some rodeo in Ft Worth. Did you make it to the Round Up Saloon?

  5. Rich says:

    Hmmm… I really battle to place myself within those phases in the context of my own life.

    I certainly recognised a cage, and made plans to escape it, yet I willingly re-enter that space regularly in order to continue my own growth. It’s almost as if I’ve picked the lock, and am free to roam outside my cage, but I come back and let some benevolent larger being feed and water me here from time to time.

    More like a cat, than a bird 🙂


    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Interesting angle. Perhaps there is structure in a cage which can beneficial. I took it for granted that a bigger life was automatically better, but as you and ‘J’ pointed out, that may have been presumptious of me.

      1. Rich says:

        That doesn’t mean that your analogy or analysis of the situation is wrong for _you_ – things like this are very personal, after all.

  6. Craig Brown says:

    This is something that I have actually thought a lot about, only the analogy I used was more Hegelian; synthesis/antithesis. I find myself going through “gathering” phases where I am learning new things and getting lots of new information, followed by “integrative” phases where I learn to put it all into practice. I can be learning in one area while I’m synthesizing it all in another area. For example, in taking care of my Mom, I struggle at times doing what I know is correct from previous experience, and at the same time I see I’m encountering things I never knew existed or I was totally ignorant of. All the time my consciousness is getting bigger.
    Gustav goes from little Ljungby to London where he perfects his English and now he writes a blog. He learns IT and must now make it pay. He learns to take care of himself and quits UBS to really put himself to the test. The stage is indeed bigger for him, and one day he may have conquered the whole world. But alas, have no fear, for it would take many lifetimes to fill a consciousness. There’s just too much too understand and too many ways of puzzling it all together.
    I feel badly for people like my Dad who stay the same size in the same cage; keep the same knowledge/understanding and same routines their whole life. What will they think if they have the opportunity to ponder what they did and why they were here in the time before they die?

  7. Gustav, what you describe is exactly what happened to me after my 23-year (22 years too long) marriage ended and I was free from the cage I never recognized. I discovered Amsterdam, where I feel more authentic than I ever did in Southern California (where I know a nice gay man in Long Beach you may want to meet), got happy, bought an apartment here, became an expat and never looked back. Having taken my life off auto-pilot, I have a new sense of childlike wonder. Perhaps you should become a psychologist ;-)…as should Craig, who provides a nice analysis of your journey. Sadly, my ex is still working in the same cage he worked in when I met him in 1972. I wish him the best, but can’t imagine living in such a rigid cage ;-).

    1. Craig Brown says:

      Melissa, I have a feeling G may be getting tired of me psychologizing him, 😉 but at least I included myself this time! So many marriages are as you describe though. That must be the most common Matryoshka Cage.

      1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

        Nonsense! If I wasn’t up for being psychoanalysed, I wouldn’t type out my heart on these blog posts! 🙂

        I’ve never been very good with relationships as I have yet not found one of those newfangled polyamorous relationships where my boyfriend and I actively encourage each other to live life to full, where neither build cages of jealousy around the other to keep him from ‘escaping’. But one day, I’ll find him .. or them. 😉

    2. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thank you for sharing that, Melissa. I’m sorry that it took you so long to escape. May I ask what made you finally break free of the cage? I state in the post that the pain of a too-small-cage is the motivation that finally gives us the strength to break free. Was I right in your case, or are there other ways that we may shake our shackles?

      1. Gustav,
        I never would have had the personal courage to break out of the cage of my miserable marriage. I was too bound by insecurity, paranoia and a feeling of complete helplessness. It was only when my husband finally asked for a divorce that I got a reprieve from that toxic union. BTW, the Jewish holiday of Passover is coming up in April…a celebration that encourages us to break the bonds of whatever form of slavery we’re trapped in. If you have a chance to attend a Passover seder (April 9-13, 2012), I hope you will take it!

  8. BrotherMichael says:

    Analogy and metaphor are useful tools to illustrate ideas and to expand the mind. Let’s drop all cage metaphors for a moment and take this opportunity to look a little deeper.

    In reality, there are no actual cages. I assume that you who are writing this blog and anyone who is reading it are not in prison or being held against their will. The truth is that self limiting THOUGHTS are the only thing which confine us. It’s the thought of the cage coupled with the experience of fear that creates the cage.
    Upon introspection: we can realize
    these “cagey” thoughts are always based in FEAR. Fear of love or fear of life itself. Fear of places, perhaps.
    Paranoia, thoughts of insecurity and helplessness are based in our own fearful thoughts too.
    Each of us must look deep within our hearts and tell the truth about what it is we are afraid of. Fear of death is a common one. Or is it fear that we will never be loved? Maybe its the fearful thought that we are NOT currently free to change our thoughts, our relationships or our living situations? Why? We all must look deeper.
    Again, It is possible to discover that fearful thoughts are the ONLY thing that truly restrict us.
    Gustav, you shared that London “held you back”. I ask you: Where was the prison? Places don’t hold us back. People don’t hold us back. Our own thoughts about people and places are what hold us back!

    There’s nothing wrong with deciding to leave London. GO! BE FREE! TRAVEL THE GLOBE! BE A MODERN NOMAD!

    But tell the truth: we are free whether we are traveling the globe, walking across town, or sitting alone in a room. Spirit is free. Love is free. The heart is free and intuition is free.
    They are always with us.
    No cage can contain them.

    1. Jono says:

      I agree with this dude. The metaphor of a cage itself is quite limiting because many people’s lives just aren’t defined by such obvious boundaries….other than the central one which is having a job.

      A job is what was holding you back, not London. What you want to do is travel and meet people to make friends. You can’t do that easily with a regular job on one site. Once you find a solution to that you’re done. And you did that.

      That said, marriage is a valid cage I suppose which is why finding the right marriage is important. Kudos to Melissa’s ex-husband for having the balls to end their marriage so she could be the one that benefitted. That was a lucky break.

      I personally don’t think I have ever had a cage because I make sure to surround myself with supportive people (you can’t choose your parents though so for many this is no easy ask). Each stage of life has just evolved from the last.

      The only time I ever felt a real cage was being stuck in one place by a job. So eventually I left it.

      The other goals I have don’t fit into the cage metaphor. I want to reach people through music to be in a position to play stadiums like Live Aid raising awareness for important issues. But yet I don’t want to be like Bono because he seems like an asshole.

      I also think going into politics and saving the world from itself is a noble calling, because that is the only way you will ever have a macroscopically positive impact
      on other people’s lives.

      But these kinds of things are hard to plan for. They each are generally high stakes with high levels of personal risk.

      What would you call those cages?

      1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

        If there is one person who I think will never get himself stuck in a cage, it is you, Jono. You have both the self-awareness to know what you want and the willpower to make it happen.

        I agree that your two examples (becoming a famous yet-not-asshole-artist and becoming a noble-politician) do not fit into the cage metaphor. Those are goals, and goals are not in themselves cages. A cage would be something that keeps you from reaching your goal. I don’t think that a lack of ability count as a cage. (But if anyone disagrees, please make your case in the comments!) However, there are plenty of plausible cages for a person desiring those lives. Overpowering self-doubt, fear of making a fool of oneself, a controlling and disapproving spouse, living in a country that does not allow your music etc.

        Finally, you said that most people’s lives aren’t defined by obvious boundaries, and I agree with that. My post wasn’t so much about what defines our lives as how I believe we can experience bursts of personal growth when we break through things that have prevented us from living the life we desire.

        However, if we get stuck in a cage for a long time, then I do think that the boundaries of the cage do start to define our lives, for the worse. I wonder to what degree Melissa feels that her marriage, during the years it lasted, defined her life.

        1. My marriage totally defined my life for a miserable 23 years. During those decades, I was a Newport Beach, CA working mom, living the American Dream. Unfortunately, it wasn’t MY dream, and it took a nasty divorce to find that out. Go figure.

    2. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      (First of all, these discussions are my favourite bit about blogging, so thanks for commenting!)

      I use the cage metaphor to mean anything that prevents us from living the life we desire, be it a physical, social or mental thing. I absolutely agree that fear is the most common cage of all. Far too many people let their fear rule rather than inform their lives. (I even wrote a blog post about how my own fear manifested itself when I contemplated becoming a nomad.)

      But another cage, that I realize now I didn’t describe properly, is a lack of opportunity. I grew up in the country side outside a small Swedish town. As a kid, it was great, but once I became a teenager, the lack of opportunity inherent in the place itself became a cage. Moving to London was the breaking out of the cage. It wasn’t fear that held me back in Ljungby (the town in question), it was Ljungby itself.

      Saying that you are ‘too big for London’ sounds terribly pretentious, so let me quickly add that the same place can be both a cage and a world of opportunity, for different people or at different times. It depends on what the person wants. I soared higher than I ever thought possible within London, but as the nomadic urge within me grew stronger, London became more of a cage. After all, a geo-static job and a rented flat are bars in a cage for a nomad, as were the fear of becoming destitute and ruining my life.

      Freedom isn’t an absolute thing. The important thing is being free to live the life you desire. If you want to be a farmer, then London will be a problem, and Ljungby would be perfect. If you want to be a stage actor, the inverse is true.

  9. Craig Brown says:

    After BrotherMichael’s interesting comments I feel I must pipe up again because you never know when someone will give you a better way of looking at something and I think I need that. There are things that have held me back because I lacked courage to overcome a fear with regards to changing it. I found the practice of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” helps to grow courage. But I have another cage in which I can’t quite see fear as the thing holding me back. It’s in regards to what Jono said about parents. I’ve taken care of a Mother for nine years with a neurological illness and mental illness which makes her very difficult. Her needs circumscribe the activities of my life greatly. I’m not AFRAID to abandon her. It’s a question of my own character. In other words, I’m not afraid of what she would say, or what anyone else would say, if I left her to her own devices. It’s what I would think of myself. It seems like a real trap! The best I’ve manage to do is control my attitude about the situation. Yes, this is freeing to some extent. But I’m still not living the life I would prefer.

    1. Craig,
      This is a common dilemma of baby-boomers (I think you’re one) with aging parents. That you are willing to care for your ill mother despite the inconveniences it causes in your life says boatloads about your character. Your mom will not be alive forever, and you will have ample time to be happy about your own good deeds during her lifetime. So just smile…and carry on…for now ;-).

      1. Craig Brown says:

        Thanks for your kind words Melissa 😉 That is pretty much how I look at the situation (and yes, I’m on the tail end of baby boomers). I have thought that my best bet is to try and find freedom within my own mind, the control of my attitude, even if my body is physically “caged” here. That’s to some extent–I am a flight attendant after all. Thank goodness for that! I wonder if this is what BrotherMichael would do.

  10. Brother Henrik says:

    I think i am a litelbit like Rich i no my cage i can step out of it if i want to but to many things hold me back like my daugter denise and the fact that i like my job.
    And i allso think that my cage is big enougth so i dont have any reason to step out 🙂

  11. Phil Stevens says:

    This post has initiated some interesting comments and debate among the readers, BrotherMichael, Jono, Craig, et al. Just goes to prove how different and yet similar, individuals experiences can influence their perception of the metaphor of the cage/s – or not.
    I think the analogy you used Gustav in demonstrating your own personal experiences and your interpretation of that is perfectly valid and has obviously helped you to evolve as a person and become increasingly more aware of who, what or where is holding you back. This certainly rang true for Mellisa and also myself. As you point out, this can often involve a good deal of emotional pain and discomfort but with the pain and discomfort also comes the impetus for change – if you allow it to. Breaking through it can indeed create explosive bursts of excitement, elation, a sense of optimism, acheivement, relief and sometimes just pure joy, felt all at once this can be quite mindblowing.
    Fear, when it is confronted and explored will very often inform you exactly what it is you need to do to overcome it and move on with your life, in this sense, fear can then become your ally, again – if you allow it to. Sadly, some people try to ignore it or push it away, percieving it as an undesirable part of themseves, an unwelcome guest in their lives, instead of working with it, they react by working against it (ultimately and in truth against themselves) by adopting unhealthy lifestyles and self-defeating behaviours.

    BrotherMichael is spot on with his comments, particularly the last paragraph except that I would add to ‘No cage can contain them’ – ‘Only our self-limiting beliefs’ which is exactly what you, Gustav, spoke of towards the end of your article.
    Many people waste their time and energy and ultimately their lives by believing that it is necessary for them to ‘add’ something to themselves, be that physical or otherwise, in order to make them a better person and realise their potential, I would say that it is more about ‘letting go’. What we need or desire is already within us (our core truth, our essential and unique nature) the very human elements associated with freedom which BrotherMichael spoke of. But along the way, often through conditioning and untruths which have been fed to us, these qualities have been masked or distorted and subsequently replaced with a persona and misunderstandings about what is expected from us and acceptable. Eventually we become lost to ourselves and our reality, living under a false premise, the relationship we have with ourselves suffers, hence we suffer. In this particular context I believe that to be the root cause of many people becoming trapped in those cages.

    Do I know my cage? I should say so, well, I am most certainly reminded of a cage that I used to live in (no, existed in) for far too long and ripped myself to pieces in the process, until my wings were barely recognisable. Feeling torn and fragmented I fell from my perch and almost ended up lying on the bottom of the cage forever but hey, I bounced back (budgie food you see, good for the soul).

  12. Phil Stevens says:

    Gustav, I forget to mention, I was intrigued with the comment you made about your search for a polyamorous relationshp/s. Perhaps this might make for an interesting and possibly contentious future post on here for you to expand upon. The pros and cons of polyamoury, the difficulties, your own experience, attitudes of others etc. and in particular, relative to your nomadic lifestyle. Or maybe it is something you consider to be ‘too personal’ or inappropriate to be discussing on this blog, in which case forget that I proposed the subject.

    1. Not too personal at all. And I am planning to write that post at some point, but… Well, if I write it now, it would be based mostly on theory and little in experience. So I want some more experience under my belt, if you know what I mean.

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