During our recent family trip to the zoo, it wasn’t the Galapagos turtles that captured my attention. It was the multi-million dollar cage the zoo was building for them.

A sleek sign highlighted features of the coming tortoise exhibit: a state-of-the-art barn with heated floors, specially selected cactus and an interactive area for visitors. The project would take months to complete at a price tag of $1.2 million. This upgraded, fancy exhibit was quite an impressive project to say the least. Yet, one thing struck me. This one glaring truth: No matter how nice this exhibit was going to be for the turtles…it was still a cage.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s going to be a nice exhibit. Guests will probably love it. The turtles may feel like they’ve scored a penthouse suite. But the fact remains, if the tortoises trek through enough exotic plants, they will run into a wall and a reality check. Despite appearances, they haven’t been freed. They’re just being confined behind fancier bars.

The turtles’ scenario prompted me to reflect on my own life.

I too have sunk energy and resources into upgrading my cage. I’ve slightly improved my social or financial condition. I’ve worked to ensure things that represent me—my appearance, job title, the way I carried myself —pleased others, outdid those around me, or at least kept me even with the next guy.

Along the way, I imagined I was moving closer to contentment. But a few steps in, I’d slam into reality: I hadn’t found freedom at all. I’d just increased the personal pressure to perform, to achieve, to be accepted. I’d dressed up my insecurities and imprisoned myself behind fancier bars. I resigned myself to fake freedom.

This might be happening in your life too. The appearance of freedom is often dressed up as an upgraded version of captivity. We make improvements, but we’re still trapped. If anything, our “improvements” often make our journey harder. We end up with more to prove, more image to manage and less willing to ask for help.

In some ways, the turtles actually one-up me. After all, tortoises are captured and forced into confinement.

Humans, on the other hand, tend to voluntarily imprison ourselves. From pills, clothes, cars, and income brackets to egos, offices, and abusive relationships, we manipulate things to gratify ourselves. We chase the new to numb the pain of repeatedly slamming into cage walls. We fill our life with distractions, both positive and negative, to avoid dealing with how trapped we really are.

But here is the good news. You don’t have to upgrade your cage anymore. You don’t have to pretend that you’re free when you’re really not. You and I can take personal responsibility to stop having the “appearance” of freedom and pursue reckless, dangerous and life-giving liberation if we want to. When Larry King asked Jerry Seinfeld about his life he responded, “I am in no place that I don’t want to be.” And that’s true of us too.

Today we can finally plot our escape route to freedom. Let those turtles do their upgrades but you don’t have to any longer.

Mike Foster is the founder of People of the Second Chance and the author of the brand new small group curriculum called “Freeway: A Not-So-Perfect Guide To Freedom.” www.secondchance.org/freeway 

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