Feeling trapped in the quarantine of COVID-19? That’s why you should watch Shawshank Redemption more today than ever. Yes, I mean today, January 20, 2021, the day of the Inauguration, and all the days ahead. Because this virus has seemed like a prison sentence, as much as the one Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) found themselves in at Shawshank prison. Especially Andy, as innocent of any wrong-doing as we are. Even if you see no clear way out (but perhaps there is one now), don’t think it’s dangerous to hope. It’s not. Hope is a necessary thing. That’s what breaks through those bars of despair. So. If you haven’t watched Shawshank Redemption lately, do. You’ll be inspired to continue to live, not to give in or give up. There is light in seemingly endless darkness.
There are at least 7 lessons in this film. Hope is one. What’s another? Hold on to who you are (and were.) The special music inside your mind? It’s you. And, even in solitary confinement, no one can take that away …
What’s in Redemption (& A Prison Sentence)?
The Shawshank Redemption isn’t only a story of hope. Yes, it’s that – in spades. It’s also a story about holding on to who you are and were (that’s Andy). And, if you weren’t ever really sure (like Red), it’s never too late to find out. Do some deep soul searching. Become the best version of yourself. It is more than possible. At any time.
What does that take? It’s not so simple. Andy Dufresne fought quite a battle in many ways. We find similar struggles in the isolation, restrictions, sudden change of life in the pandemic we’re living in now. It’s not Shawshank Prison, to be sure. Yet, if we’re not careful, despair and a sense of defeat could get the best of us.
Andy never lets that happen. This film, adapted from Stephen King’s novella, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” directed by Frank Darabont, gives us an inspiring message of determination, resilience, cunning smarts, self-protection, and never forgetting who you are – or who you can be.
So, what do Andy and Shawshank Redemption teach us? What are the steps to redemption, in whatever way we can find it, in whatever situation we’re in? Not redemption in the religious sense, but in the human sense. That could be correcting a past wrong, exchanging something for something else (Red was a master at that). Both Andy and Red traded the life they had for a new start. Here are some of the things it took:
Outwit despair & don’t let it break you
Find that special music inside – it’s You
Face the past & let it go
Think hope is dangerous? Think again
Let real friends help you
Get busy living (don’t give up)
Freedom has a new face
First – Who is Andy Dufresne?
He could be any of us, living in the aftermath of a something we’re innocent of (like a pandemic). Andy’s at the center of Shawshank Redemption. Wrongly accused of the murder of his wife and her tennis pro lover. Yes, Andy was drunk, had a gun, was angry and hurt, and unsure of what he wanted to do (kill them or kill himself), sitting outside the tennis pro’s house, blacking out. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
Feelings are different than reality, though. Yes, they ended up dead; but Andy didn’t do it. Sure, the motive was there, and with his gun, thrown to the bottom of the river; never retrieved, there was no way to see if the bullets matched. And, yes, it looked very bad indeed. And, no one, especially the prosecutor and Judge, believed he was innocent.
Andy has his own reasons to feel guilty. Not of murder; but for pushing his wife away, into the arms of another man. Those he must face to truly be free. But, first, he has other things to fight. Cruelty. Abuse. Despair. And, none of it is easy. How does he do it? Hold on for 19 years, while all the while hatching a plan that might set him free?
Outwit Despair & Don’t Let It Break You
Despair can try to take you down in many ways. For Andy, it comes in the form of a sadistic, cruel, murderous Guard named Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), a corrupt Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), and the “Sisters” who use him, torture him, and sexually violate him as hard as he tries to fight them off. And he throws some good punches.
These kinds of things could really beat anyone down. Especially if they team up with a hopeless voice inside you. A voice that says you’re worthless (like the guard and warden do). Or keep at you: “Don’t make a wrong move, or I’ll get the best of you. You’ll be locked up, in solitary confinement, forever. I have the control.” Yes, it’s easy to give up.
We see it in Red. He doesn’t think there’s any way out. His past eats away at him. How do you get away from that? Andy is innocent, but as I said, he has his own regrets. Yet, Andy knows the secret of getting free. You can be locked up, but the essence of who you are can’t be taken from you. Not in prison. Or in quarantine. Or by anyone.
Some birds can’t be caged. Red found that out about Andy. In fact, Red knew it from the start: “Andy walked and talked differently. Like he had an invisible shield around him.” What was it? Self-respect? Yes. A refusal to be broken down? Yes, to that too.
Andy was strong. Also, smart. Saw, from the beginning, that the walls of the prison were not as hard (or fast) or restrictive as one might think. A good lesson for now. So, Andy asked the contraband procurement expert (Red) for a 7-inch rock hammer and Rita Hayworth (& Raquel Welch & Marilyn Monroe as well.)
Find That Special Music Inside – It’s You
Red thought it would take 600 years to toggle through those walls. Not for Andy. But, then again, Andy isn’t only a bird that can’t be caged. No one can take his music.
He remembers who he was. Holds onto that. A banker, he knows about money. Also, a good opportunity. Helps the sadist Guard, Hadley, shelter his inheritance so he doesn’t pay taxes. Does all the other guard’s taxes each year, lined up at Andy’s “desk.”
And, he launders money for the corrupt Warden Norton; the money Norton gets from bribes. Yes, but Andy does it with a plan. For the freedom he deserves. Andy also has that rare something: empathy. That helps too. Perhaps he finds it at Shawshank.
When Hadley kills the fat, new prisoner, crying for his mother that first night; Andy asks his name. Others shut him down. But he knows. Everyone is someone. So, he makes friends with Red, Haywood (William Sadler), Brookes Hatlan (James Whitmore) the old prisoner librarian, and the kid, Tommy (Gil Bellows). Writes letter after letter to the Senate, gets funds, sets up a library, and helps a hundred prisoners get their GED’s.
When the Senate comes through with money for books, there are records too. What does Andy do? Locks the guard in the bathroom; the Warden out of his office; blares angelic music through the loudspeakers of the entire prison for everyone to hear. Andy, sitting back in the Warden’s chair, soaking it in. Remembering. what cannot be taken.
In Red’s words: “Something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache … Andy … made those walls dissolve. For a few moments, every man in Shawshank felt free.” Because that something that can’t be taken? It’s YOU.
Yet, really getting free, in the way Andy will, means facing the past and letting it go.
Face the Past & Let It Go
Getting free is holding on to yourself. Inside the bars. Inside the quarantine of prison or of COVID-19. No one can rob you of that. And, if you have your regrets; like Andy. Or Red. Don’t let those stop you. It’s a good time for soul searching. And, that’s not going to a place where the past does not exist (like the blue Pacific out there in Zihuatanejo.)
Andy learns; faces his guilt. He didn’t kill his wife, but he felt responsible for her death. Just didn’t know how to show his love. Closed her out. And, in this way, he lived even then in a prison of his own making. No, he didn’t pull the trigger, but he drove her away. And, now, in a real prison of “bad luck” and regrets, he learns to show his feelings.
Red teaches him and, he, Red. Friends help. Unlikely friends. Friends that see each other. Better yet, Red learns a thing or two about what is possible for him too. He’s given up trying to be who they want too. Even, honest and open, but unlike Andy, he doesn’t expect much. He’s scared; given up. As of yet, he doesn’t have much hope.
It’s not easy for Red. Terrified as he is that he can’t make it on the outside. Couldn’t before, can he now? Parole hearing after parole hearing, Red says the words he thinks he’s supposed to say or something like that. Are you rehabilitated? Absolutely. No danger to society here. Each time a big, red (irony?) REJECTED stamp.
Perhaps he was one of those rejected children. That made him feel unworthy; able to kill. Thinking his own life wasn’t worth much either. So, he warns Andy, what he keeps telling himself: “Don’t think about hope. Hope? It’s dangerous.”
Think Hope Is Dangerous? Think Again
No, it’s not. Andy teaches Red that. Sure, he got two weeks in the hole (solitary confinement) for playing the music. But you know what? It was worth it to Andy. As he tells Red: “I had music in there.” He taps his head and his heart. “That’s the beauty of music. They can’t take it from you. It’s inside you and it’s yours.” That music – it’s HOPE.
And, if you have help holding on to hope, your Zihuatanejo isn’t a pipe dream. Even if you have to go through a very shitty pipe (and a terribly difficult time) to get there. Like Andy says not once, but twice; or maybe more: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And, no good thing ever dies.” That’s true.
Remember where you’ve been, where you don’t want to stay. Like Andy says: “It comes down to a simple choice: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” And, it’s true. Hope can get you through most anything. Even the cruelest and hardest of times. Yes, remember.
Andy never lost hope. That’s the thing. It is what saved him. That and his smarts. He had no choice but to give in to Norton’s threats, his coercions. Sure, he took the Warden Norton’s clothes to the laundry and laundered the money he collected in bribes.
Yet, the way Andy did it was to get himself a new identity. Randall Stevens. With a birth certificate, Social Security #, and bank accounts. Conjured him up. An apparition. A phantom, a figment of his imagination. A new identity; that would be his way out. Yes, he went through a lot of shit (literally through sewer pipes), but freedom was his.
That conjured up identity? Just a way to get out. It’s what you can imagine. Protection of sorts. To find your best self; your Zihuatanejo; a new version of life. It’s not impossible. Real friends can help, if you let them. Take a lesson from Andy and Red.
An Oak Tree & A Real Friend
Andy makes Red promise: “If you ever get out, do me a favor. There’s a big hayfield up near Buxton. One in particular. A big rock wall and an oak tree on the North end. Something out of a Robert Frost poem. It’s where I asked my wife to marry me. We went there for a picnic, made love under that tree. Promise me. There’s a black volcanic rock, has no business there. There’s something buried I want you to have …”
That was right before Andy walked away. Well, not quite so easily. Asked for 6 feet of rope. Got everyone worried, especially Red, who missed his friend. Yes, his friend. The next morning, Andy was gone. Not dead; gone from his cell. Through that tunnel, it took him 19 years of HOPE to dig. Hope he left for Red, though Red didn’t know that yet.
Yes, donned the Warden’s shoes after he’d polished them to a T, just like the Warden said. Took Norton’s suit, his books; crawled right through the shit (READ, sewage pipes) the Warden put him through; and, next day, walked into the bank; assuming the Phantom of an identity he’d created with all the proper papers; just for this purpose.
His freedom. And, took $300,000 of the Warden’s laundered money – all the way to Zihuatanejo. Plus, he wrote an expose of murder and corruption at Shawshank, that appeared on the front page of the paper the next day. Warden Norton got Andy’s worn-out prison boots, his rightful due, and, as the police closed in on him, a bullet through his own throat, wondering: “How the hell did Andy Dufresne get the best of me?
But, Andy and Red? Andy taught Red a thing or two. About hope. And living.
Moral for COVID-19? Get Busy Living
And, Red? Well, he learned to get busy living, just like Andy said. Not an easy lesson for him. Red didn’t trust freedom, hope, or change. Yet, it happened. In spite of himself.
At his next parole hearing: “Rehabilitation? I have no idea what that means. Am I sorry? Not a day I don’t feel regret. Not because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then; a young stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk some sense to him. Tell him the way things are. I can’t. That kid’s long gone. This old man is all that’s left. I’ve got to live with that.” Stamped. Approved.
What does Red do now? First, he thinks of all the ways he could break his parole so maybe they’ll send him back. He doesn’t know how to be free. And, it’s a terrible thing to live in fear. Until he remembers that Oak tree. And, his promise to Andy. That he wouldn’t think to break. Not knowing that what Andy left was really for Red.
A letter, signed: “Your friend, Andy.” With money for a ticket to join him in Zihuatanejo. An invitation. To find the courage for a new life. The hand of a real friend, reaching out to help him on his way. Yes, “get busy living. Or get busy dying.” Red chose to live.
Freedom Has A New Face
And, so can we. Despite COVID-19 and quarantine; despite fear and despair. Just don’t let despair beat you down. It’s not impossible to get busy living in whatever way you can. Even now. Just like Andy says. Especially, don’t forget who you are. And, REMEMBER, this may not be the life you knew. But freedom is inside you. There is the music that is YOU.
We will get free. And, freedom can have a new face. We don’t really have a choice in that, do we? But we do have a choice to get busy living. We all can. If we remember Red’s words on the bus at the start of his new journey: “I hope. I hope …”
We didn’t give up or give in. We fought, just like Andy and Red. So, here we are, on January 20, 2021, with a new face of hope. A caring, inclusive, unifying President, with his Vice President and cabinet, who will do his best to lead us out of the prison of despair we’ve all been living in. Yes, “I hope. I hope …” are words never to be forgotten.