Freedom and Redemption: The Shawshank Edition

A couple of weeks ago I got to thinking about that movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” It just popped into my head one day as I pondered the often complex relationship between freedom and courage and fear.

I thought about the old guy in the movie, Brooks, who had completed 50 years as an inmate at Shawshank Prison. By the time we meet him, life outside of prison had become a distant memory for him, a non-reality. Red, the story’s narrator and another inmate, described Brooks as “institutionalized”—a part of the prison system for so long that he had absorbed its identity as his own. He could no longer separate Brooks, the man, from Brooks, the inmate.

Then one day, the powers that be handed Brooks the one essential thing his fellow inmates coveted and clamored for, the one thing that, indeed, most humans fight for, and the one thing on which he himself, at one point in time, had probably hung hopes and dreams.

Freedom.

Freedom to walk away, to make his own choices, to live his life by his own rules, to take back ownership of his life.

But as he stood on the threshold between a dark and narrow past, and a vast, open future, Brooks faltered.

The future, with all its bright possibilities and choices and freedoms turned out to be more than he could handle. He had come from a place where Big Brother controlled every minute of his day, every morsel of food he ate, every activity in which he engaged, practically every thought in his head. To suddenly be free of this weight threw him off-balance, left him feeling unmoored and adrift.

Lost.

He tried to make do in this new land of the free, to make sense of the vast and unfamiliar landscape. To find a new reason and purpose for his life. But he just could not find a firm grip.

In the end, the effort just didn’t seem worth it. One day, in the little apartment that posed as his new home, he hung himself. Cause of death: freedom.

Freedom can shock your senses when you’ve gotten so used to being tied down.

Believe me, I know.

I’ve written about how I spent a good part of my life feeling trapped by weaknesses, unrealistic expectations, and a large helping of fear. I yearned for my own freedom, for the day I could finally make my life my own. Turns out, unlike Brooks, the obstacles causing my entrapment were mostly false fronts with unlocked doors. With a little courage and strategic effort, I could easily walk through them.

Knowing this, I’d like to think I’d be more like the movie’s main character, Andy: brave, determined, willing to risk everything, even his life, for his freedom, for the sake of taking back ownership of his life. But the truth is, sometimes I fear I more resemble old man Brooks, who had become so institutionalized and re-formed that a life behind bars was the only life that made sense.

But even knowing that my sense of captivity is largely an illusion, I still hesitate at the threshold. Somehow the devil I know—the frustration, the yearnings, the maddening sense of being tethered to the ground—lures me back to its side with offerings I find difficult to resist: Safety. Familiarity. Comfort (such as it is) in that I at least I know my way around here.

Compelling things, those, and not to be underestimated.

Holding tightly to them, freedom looks like the devil I don’t know. From the vantage point of safety, freedom looks vast and intimidating and overwhelming, even as it intrigues and calls to me.

But freedom does beckon, slowly, patiently, coaxing me out like you would a frightened dog or skittish horse. Showing me where I can make different choices, embrace new assumptions and beliefs, and envision a different outcome. I learn to be patient with myself, to understand that I have to give my eyes enough time to adjust to this new landscape, to begin to recognize objects and forces—thoughts, promptings, ideas, dreams—that I had been blind to before.

Isn’t that what Andy did for Red in the movie? Andy helped Red to see beyond the walls of their prison, to envision an outcome other than life and death in captivity. Andy gave Red reason to hope. And when Red was finally released after more than 40 years of imprisonment, fully institutionalized, by his own admission, Andy saved his life by luring him towards a future and a hope.

Towards freedom. And redemption.

By the grace of God, that’s where I’m headed, too.

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