Get busy living, or get busy dying.
My all time favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. A tale of hope in the midst of despair, of salvation on the other side of suffering, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a successful banker condemned to Shawshank prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. It is a hard movie to watch, and certainly not for children. It doesn’t blink at the horrors of incarceration, but because of that, it offers a powerful exploration of human nature. From the depths of depravity when Andy faces gang rape by “the sisters,” to the heights of redemption when he teaches “Red” (Morgan Freeman) the meaning of hope, in all this we get a glimpse into what it means to be human.
Hope. That is the center around which this film revolves. Shawshank is a terrible place, but worse than the corrupt warden and sadistic guards, worse even than “the sisters” (they aren’t homosexual, Red notes, “they’d have to be human first”), its real danger is the power to dehumanize. Its walls and bars do more than just keep men inside, they change those they contain. “First you hate them, then you get used to them,” Red explains, “enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.” He calls it being “institutionalized.” Spend enough time in prison and it no longer matters why you’re there. Guilty or innocent, there comes a time when you no longer have an identity except as an inmate. You lose your autonomy, and by then even release leaves nothing but the broken shell of a man. “They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take.”
There is only one thing that can save a man in Shawshank–hope. But what is hope? Is it just a pipe dream, a delusion, a refusal to accept reality and thus ultimately hopeless. That’s what Red thinks, but Andy knows better. He knows that, whatever men may do to the body, they can never kill the soul. Referring specifically to music, he says you need it to remember “there’s something inside that they can’t get to, they can’t touch.” Even so, Andy is not content to ignore the world and hide in his mind. Twice, he risks his life and position to show his friends what hope means. In one case, he gladly accepts two weeks of solitary confinement for broadcasting opera over the prison loudspeakers. “Easiest time I ever did.”
For what Andy realized–and this is where the movie really shines–is that real hope is not about closing your eyes to the evil around you, stopping your ears and dreaming. No, true hope, paradoxically, comes by actively dying to yourself. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” he tells Red, for it’s only when you are willing risk everything that freedom becomes possible. Thus in the end, hope is closely tied to courage, of which G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.
He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.