Life-Lessons from The Shawshank Redemption by Christina Knowles

The-Shawshank-Redemption1            In 1982, while still in high school, I first read Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” in a short story collection called Different Seasons and have been hooked on King ever since. Then came the movie version: Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, two of my favorite actors. It has been my favorite movie since the first time I saw it in 1994. If you haven’t seen it, where have you been? A movie about hope, friendship, and the indomitable human spirit, it’s still the highest rated movie of all time according to the IMBD. If you haven’t seen the movie, you need to stop reading and watch it now. Get ready to “get busy living or get busy dying.”

*SPOILER ALERT* If you’ve never seen it, you might want to stop here. Anyway, there are some minor differences between the story and the movie. In the story Red is an Irish guy with graying red hair, there are a few different wardens during Andy’s incarceration, and the last one is forced to retire instead of getting busted and committing suicide. Tommy, who had new evidence of Andy’s innocence, was bribed with minimum-security prison instead of getting shot, and Brooks played a slightly more minor role in the story than in the movie. Also, the story ends with Red getting ready to go meet Andy instead of arriving in Mexico. However, minor differences aside, Darabont held closely to King’s original story and was true to the integrity of the characters. Even many of the lines from the movie are dialogue taken directly from the story. This story is so poignant, so profound, and so universal that I don’t know anyone who sees it without feeling like he just got schooled on life and how to live it. The basic premise is that prison is a metaphor for life and, no matter what life gives us, how we handle it makes all the difference. But there are so many life-lessons in this movie that it’s worth taking a closer look at them.

One of the first things I get from this movie is that life is just not fair. Just get used to it, bad things happen to good people all the time. Not only did Andy’s wife cheat on him, but he is blamed for her murder as well as for her boyfriend’s. He got two consecutive life sentences, and he didn’t do anything. Life’s not fair, but Andy did not let even that ruin his life because not only can suffering be endured, you never know when things will suddenly turn around. Time is going to pass anyway. Will it be good time or bad?

                  Andy went through some serious suffering at the hands of the “sisters” in prison, as well as at the hands of the guards and the warden. But Andy doesn’t let anything in that he doesn’t want in. We see that the body can be broken, but not the spirit. No one can take away what is inside you. The human spirit cannot be contained within the walls of any prison if you don’t let it. We have control over our inner life, and no one can affect us in any significant way unless we let them.

Andy always had hope, which is the main theme of the movie, but not only did he have it, he shared it with everyone around him. Hope is essential to human endurance. A lot of long-term prisoners at Shawshank didn’t have a lot of hope. Red said hope was a dangerous thing, but Andy didn’t see it that way. He thought losing hope was more dangerous. Hope kept him going when he didn’t think he had the strength, and hope led to action. He was willing to take the biggest risks because of hope. Andy also gave hope to Red, who might have ended up like Brooks if not for him.

Brooks had become institutionalized. The thing that struck me about Brooks was how we can so gradually get used to the way things are, even if they’re terrible, that we become immobile from fear of change. When Brooks was released after serving over thirty years in prison, he couldn’t take it on the outside. He lost hope because he let fear paralyze him.

Red didn’t want to become like Brooks. He learned to take risks from Andy. What did he have to lose? When Andy had had enough, when he decided he couldn’t take it anymore, he took a risk, and it paid off. There was no point in playing it safe because time was passing rapidly, and if you just play it safe, you’re just waiting to die. Andy said, “Get busy living or get busy dying,” and taking risks is part of living. Time is going to pass either way, so we may as well spend it living. He successfully taught this lesson to Red because when the time came, Red was willing to take a risk to jump parole and take a bus to join Andy and start living rather than ending up like Brooks.

But before Andy ever took this biggest risk, he planned ahead and used his skills that he already possessed. Before Andy went to prison, he set up an account under a pseudonym with some money in it. He hid a fake passport and ID under a rock in the middle of a field under an old oak tree—just in case. It was there waiting for him when he needed it. When he was in prison, he used his skills with accounting and his knowledge of tax law to become a valued and necessary person in the prison. Eventually his skills led him to successfully escape. He was also educated and intelligent. His cleverness led to his freedom, but along the way he shared his knowledge with others and showed them how important knowledge and ingenuity is to survival. He had self-worth and persistence as well. No one could make Andy feel like he was worthless or take away his belief in himself. He endured, knowing he deserved better, and set about to make it happen. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, as the saying goes, and Andy wrote letters every week to the prison board until they funded his new prison library.

Eventually his persistence led to his freedom too. If you chip away at a problem a little at a time, it will yield big results. Andy picked away at the crumbling concrete walls of his cell for years, hiding his work behind a series of pin-up girl posters, smuggling the powdered remains out into the yard on a daily basis. He took his time (he had plenty) and kept up the pressure. Eventually, he had his path to freedom. He never could have gotten away with it if he tried to do it all at once, or had given up because it was taking too long.

Andy always had purpose. Immediately upon arriving at Shawshank, Andy took up hobbies. He collected rocks, carved figurines, built up a great library within the prison, and got a job doctoring the books for the warden. He even tutored a fellow inmate, helping him pass his GED. Keeping busy, whether in prison or in life, makes the difficult times go faster, gives us purpose, and can even be enjoyable.

            He noticed beauty even in prison, and it made his time go easier. He read books, carved beautiful figurines, appreciated his pin-up girls, and let beautiful music take him away from the prison in transcendent bliss. Beauty would be easy to ignore in a place like Shawshank, but Andy let it help him rise above his surroundings.

Andy made friends and took care of them. He helped Tommy get his GED, he was a loyal confidante to Red, he finagled a deal to get beers for his work crew, he brought culture and beauty to the prison, and he offered his help in financial matters to several people at the prison. As a result, Andy was well-liked, respected, made real friends, and put himself in a position to help himself. But the most important thing he did for everyone was to remind them that the human spirit can never be imprisoned. He genuinely cared for others, rejoiced in their successes, and was loyal and kind to those who earned his friendship. He realized that people need to feel free and have dignity and respect. If we have this, we don’t need much else. When Andy got the guard to buy his work crew beer, and they sat on the roof enjoying the suds on a summer afternoon, it was like all of them had been set free for just a little while.

Andy teaches us that sometimes you just have to take a stand for what you believe in. When Andy found an old record album of beautiful opera, he locked himself in the office and broadcasted the beautiful music over the loudspeakers, so that all the inmates could experience a moment of beauty. He knew he would be punished, but it was worth the cost.

Andy shows us that we might have to be willing to go through some shit to get what we need. Andy knew that freedom meant wading and crawling through 500 yards of sewer to get to the other side, so he bucked up and just did it. The lesson here: Suck it up and do what’s necessary.

Next, we learned that transformation is possible. People can change if they learn how. Andy changed a lot of lives, but he probably had the biggest effect on Red. He changed Red’s outlook, and he taught Red not to be institutionalized and to have hope. Red also was rehabilitated. He was a different person than the brash young man who entered Shawshank.

Being honest is another theme. Red sat in front of the parole board time and time again, giving them the stock answers about how he was rehabilitated, not a threat to society, had learned his lesson, and he was always denied release. When Red didn’t care enough anymore to say what he thought they wanted to hear, he was just honest. He talked about the young man he was when he committed his crime, he talked about what he’d learned through the years, about his regrets, and about how he wished he could go back and talk to his younger self. Recognizing his sincerity and his true rehabilitation, the parole board approved his release.

            Another important lesson from Shawshank is not to be bitter. In the end, Andy claims responsibility for driving his wife away, and even feels bad for putting her in the position she was when she was murdered, even though he spent more than twenty years in prison, paying the penalty for a crime of which he was innocent. He wasn’t bitter. Instead of dwelling on others, and things he could not control, he reflected on himself and how he could learn and change, and be a better person.

And finally, we learn that it’s good to take a rest. Andy headed to Mexico to live a better life. He earned it, he deserved it, so he took it. At the end, we are left with the impression that Andy is going to spend the rest of his days living out the hopes and dreams of his long and unjust incarceration. He isn’t going to punish himself, living in fear or anger. He’s going to “get busy living.”

So, I apologize for going on so long on this topic, but this story is so rich with meaning and deeply insightful that I just couldn’t help myself. This is why it’s my personal favorite when it comes to movies, and why I consider King, who has an intuitive understanding of the human condition even in its most degraded state, the Charles Dickens of our era. So, what will it be? Good time or bad? Will you get busy living or get busy dying?—Christina Knowles

 

Generation Z: Is There Hope for the Future? by Christina Knowles

Generation Z Generation Z. We’ve heard a lot about them. And a lot of it is true. They are glued to their phones and computers, they prefer snapping pictures of the board to taking notes, and generally they would rather Google answers instead of reading a book. They are realistic and question the system they’ve been brought up in. They question tradition and think for themselves. And they are the sweetest, most compassionate, and socially conscious generation I’ve ever encountered in my teaching career.

My students realize what kind of world they live in, and they don’t accept the failed solutions of previous generations. They are cynical about bureaucratic systems, but they are idealistic about the world. They know they need to make money, and they usually have a plan of how to make it, but they want to make it while changing the world for the better.

They want to do something meaningful with their lives; they want to serve the community with their careers. Not like the Peace Corp hippies (which I love, by the way) of the past, but through their innovation and creativity.

Generation Z-ers are looking for ways to create the next big thing, the next big thing that will make them lots of money, and the next big thing that will slow climate change, feed the poor, and feed them organically. They want to cure cancer and AIDS. Or maybe invent the next trendy technology, and then donate a portion of the proceeds to a charity like some of their favorite socially conscious companies—Be Good, Fair Trade Winds, and Toms. Somehow, they learned to care about others even with their noses in their phones, maybe even using those phones to learn about what needs changing.

They are accepting of other people more than any generation I’ve ever seen. For the last couple of years, I’ve seen a change in the classroom—students who are kind to people who are different, students who have compassion for the developmentally and physically challenged, who have understanding and respect for their LGBT neighbors, and kindness for the socially awkward. Of course, there is a bully or a bigot here and there, but these kids are the most socially sophisticated people I have ever met. They discuss differences in civilized tones, make friends with people completely different than themselves, and stand up to these few bullies that rise up around them. This gives me hope for our future.

So, these kids may live at home with their parents a little too long, they may lazily Google their homework, they may decide college is too expensive after weighing the costs, and they may question everything I tell them (I love that, by the way), but our future is safe in their hands, and we definitely can rest in the knowledge that this group won’t simply cast aside the previous generations as useless because they are way too nice for that.

We can also trust them to find solutions to environmental problems, stand up for animal rights, fight for the rights of every oppressed group, they will raise their hands when they disagree with us, and jump up to help the transgendered kid who dropped his books. They will politely quote a philosopher they discovered on Reddit, Vine, Medium, or whatever social media site they are currently using. They will throw out our old ideas along with our misconceptions of their inability to take care of themselves and prove us right when we say, “Kids these days—there really is hope for the future.” –Christina Knowles

Is There Hope for the Human Race? by Christina Knowles

Snagged from www.vox.com
Snagged from http://www.vox.com

It has been a depressing week. Refugee children from South America continue to suffer, the Israeli-Hamas conflict is far from over, even though they are experiencing a temporary ceasefire, the Ebola virus is spreading across many African countries, tensions are rising as the radical Sunni threaten the Kurdish region, Robin Williams tragically committed suicide, Lauren Bacall died as well, and protests and riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri after the unarmed Michael Brown was shot by the police, and then the militarized police force moved on protestors with armored vehicles, assault rifles, and tear gas. And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head. Like I said, a very depressing week.

Snagged from www.vox.com.
Snagged from http://www.vox.com.

One might wonder if there is even any hope left for the human race. This week I asked myself that question. It would seem, if one were listening to the news, that everything is spiraling out of control, and we are on a fast trip downward toward annihilation. But is everything really getting worse? Or is this just the perception we have from an ever-increasing saturation of instant news coverage via cable news, Twitter, and Facebook? Although I am thankful for social media for its ability to provide a platform for the average person to report what they see, rather than relying on our somewhat (understatement) biased news sources, are we letting our access to hastily reported news prejudice us against our own futures? Perhaps.

Snagged from www.vox.com.
Snagged from http://www.vox.com.

Let’s look at history to get some perspective. According to longevity expert, Sharon Basaraba, “From the 1500s to around the year 1800, life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between the ages of 30 and 40” (Basaraba). Today our life expectancy has more than doubled since that time. Obviously, advances in medical care and hygiene make our world a better, safer place. We have vaccines, regulated hospitals, and most developed countries enjoy clean water. We also see improvements in food and environmental protections. Prior to the 1950s, corporations could dump toxic waste without fear of penalties, poisoning fish and water sources, as well as the surrounding agriculture. Since then food inspection and labeling has advanced, and even twenty years ago, people didn’t take the idea of avoiding GMOs and eating organic seriously, but today it is widely accepted. Okay, but what about all the violence and terrorism in the world?

According to a 2011 Huffington Post article, statistics show violence is down worldwide, despite global conflicts. “The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008.

Snagged from marginalrevolution.com
Snagged from marginalrevolution.com

“There were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to about 25 now. Rape in the United States is down 80 percent since 1973. Lynchings, which used to occur at a rate of 150 a year, have disappeared.

“Discrimination against blacks and gays is down, as is capital punishment, the spanking of children, and child abuse” (Seth Borenstein). But despite the data, most people I know believe violence is at an all-time high. Why? Because we hear about it, see it in graphic detail on the evening news and on our Twitter feed.

And what about civil rights? Although there are human rights violations daily all over the planet, more countries now have civil rights laws than ever before. Minorities and women in our country enjoy much more freedom and less prejudice than in the early 20th century although there is obviously a long way to go. Accommodations for the disabled have come very far. We’re seeing the right to marry for homosexuals granted in more and more states all the time. Working conditions are better thanks to unions and the 40-hour work week, there are no more sweat shops, at least in most developed countries, and there are child labor laws to protect the young. There are fewer injuries on the job and education is more available than 100 years ago, although rising costs of college are beginning to turn the trend back the other way. But weren’t people just happier in the past?

Not necessarily. Some people argue that we are in a recession, and people tend to be less happy in economic down-cycles. However, other research shows that people today are more likely to follow their dreams and opt for an emotionally fulfilling career over money, as long as they are somewhat secure. Perhaps because not many jobs today are secure, there is actually more perceived freedom to follow your dreams. Another reason people may be happier is because they are healthier or because they have more freedom to be themselves. Shana Lebowitz reports that a study in 2013 by The National Institute on Aging found that people are indeed happier than the same people were when they were younger, probably because people tend to get happier as they age. The study also found that people born after the Baby Boomers are happier than the Baby Boomers themselves (Lebowitz). As an English teacher, I read a lot of old books, and people do just seem nicer, more sensitive now, than portrayals of people hundreds of years ago. I have noticed that children seem less respectful; however, children also have gained more freedom and autonomy, which would explain a greater freedom to express themselves, especially in negative ways.

So are we truly spiraling the drain? Or is it just our perception?

I guess I am trying to say that although things seem horrible—and they are sometimes, as bad as it is, we do seem to be learning something. We are progressing even though we don’t hear about that on the evening news. All it takes is a little research to put things into perspective. I know we all expected to be driving hover cars and colonizing the moon, while reading about eradicated disease and something called war in the history books, but change is slow and we can’t see something grow while we are staring at it. So chin up—there is hope for the human race after all.—Christina Knowles

Sources:

Basaraba, Sharon. “Longevity Throughout History: How has human life expectancy changed over time?” April 21, 2013. Available: http://longevity.about.com/od/longevitystatsandnumbers/a/Longevity-Throughout-History.htm Accessed: August 15, 2014.

Borenstein, Seth. Huffington Post. “World Becoming Less Violent: Despite Global Conflict, Statistics Show Violence In Steady Decline” October, 22, 2011. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/22/world-less-violent-stats_n_1026723.html Accessed: August 15, 2014.

Hoegen, Monika. “Statistics and the quality of life: Measuring progress – a world beyond GDP.” Edited by Thomas Wollnik. Available: http://www.oecd.org/site/progresskorea/globalproject/44227733.pdf Accessed: August 15, 2014.

Tabarrok, Alex. “Long Term Trends in Homicide Rates” June 1, 2011.Available: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/06/long-term-trend-in-homicide-rates.html#sthash.JQAecZHp.dpufhttp://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/06/long-term-trend-in-homicide-rates.html Accessed: August 15, 2014. 

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