My Shawshank Redemption

We all have favorite movies. Occasionally, a friend and I will compare our top five or top ten lists. Some overlap is common (The Godfather, Some Like It Hot). I love it when my friend introduces me to a movie I’ve never seen, and even better when she talks about a movie that I didn’t much like and explains what I had somehow missed.Shawshank Redemption movie poster

For many years, my favorite movie has been The Shawshank Redemption (TSR). I’m hardly alone in this. For years, on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) poll, TSR has been at or near the top the list of viewers’ all-time favorite films. Written and directed by Frank Darabont (long before his fame from The Walking Dead), starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, TSR has been called a lot of things: a prison movie, a love story, a parable about the human condition. It’s one of those movies that people see in very different ways, gleaning more with repeated viewings. Fans explore its depths and draw from it what we see or need.

For me, TSR is much more than a prison movie. Based on Stephen King’s novella, it is a film with universal themes: growth, integrity, freedom and deliverance. It has never failed to inspire me when I need a reminder of the work I have yet to do, or a kick in the pants to get motivated to act. The characters struggle with their “institutionalized” lives in the prison and cope with the corruption, threat of violence and regimentation that define their days. Escape is seemingly impossible, as is being released in time to have anything like a normal life.

One line that is repeated in the movie–“Get busy living, or get busy dying”–carries the essential message.

The essence of TSR’s appeal to me are in two finely written scenes near the end of the film. Both of them are great because of Morgan Freeman, who plays Red, the character whose redemption is referenced in the title. The first scene is Red’s final parole hearing, He expresses the weariness with the whole system and his role in it. He is beyond caring what other people think, has no more excuses to make, no games left to play. He is ready to own his life choices, scrap everything that he has tried before, and claim his freedom from the past.

The second scene comes at the end of the story. After decades in Shawshank prison, Red is paroled. He keeps a promise he made to Andy, the character played by Tim Robbins and Red’s best friend, who had escaped the prison years before. Red finds the oak tree in a field that Andy had told him about, in search of what is buried under a black volcanic rock. He is making the move of his life. Stealthily, he looks around, expecting to get caught. But he is ready to “come a little further,” as Andy’s note urges him, and break the rules that have governed his life.

In her fine book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, and again here, the psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach writes of Mohini, a white tiger that spent most of her years at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in a 12′ x 12′ steel cage in the lion house, where she paced back and forth continuously. When a more natural habitat was created for her, zoo staff eagerly anticipated how the tiger would respond to having room to run. But when Mohini was released into that large open space, she took refuge in a corner of the compound, where she continued to pace in a section of grass the same size as her old cage. It was, writes Brach, “too late” for her.

Brach sees Mohini as a metaphor for those of us who never learn to accept ourselves and embrace our full experience.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy in our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns. Entangled in the trance of unworthiness, we grow accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment and anxiety, with restlessness and dissatisfaction. Like Mohini, we grow incapable of accessing the freedom and peace that are our birthright. We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small. Even if we were to win millions of dollars in the lottery or marry the perfect person, as long as we feel not good enough, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the possibilities before us. Unlike Mohini, however, we can learn to recognize when we are keeping ourselves trapped by our own beliefs and fears. We can see how we are wasting our precious lives.

“The Shawshank Redemption” reminds me of the prisons we inhabit, forgetting that the key to the cell door is in our pockets. What will it take for us to use the key? Will past coping patterns continue to define our futures? What will have to change before we allow ourselves to get free?

Get busy living, or get busy dying.

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