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7 lessons I learned from The Shawshank Redemption

Ah, The Shawshank Redemption. A friend of mine says he has re-watched the film more than any other. We’re talking double figures here.

It’s also a but of a cult classic of inspirational movies, and there are stories of how it totally changed some peoples’ approach to life.

Yet I can’t remember much from when I first watched it; and while I don’t make it a practice to re-watch movies, I thought it’d be nice to give it another go and ended up discovering more than I ever remembered from my first viewing.

If you haven’t watched it I suggest you do before reading on; part of the beauty of film is discovering them for yourself.

Otherwise, here are 7 lessons I learned (or re-learned):

Do what you can, and keep on moving

From first moment to last, Andy Dufresne just kept doing what he could, in whatever situation he landed up in.

In the beginning when he first entered Shawshank, he worked to survive, simply doing what he was told and towing the line. Soon he tried to help the captain keep his inheritance from that tax man— and in the process scored beer for his mates. Later on he took an interest in carving chess pieces himself for his game. After that he worked to get everyone a library, first as a one-time donation, then years later as an on-going contribution.

Now, the movie spanned years; but how often have we lived through a long period only to discover we didn’t really do constructive?

It’s a good reminder to always do what we can, especially when circumstances are difficult; and not just staying on the spot but doing more each time. Small actions can compound into large outcomes if we keep at it.

Work on projects you care about, and for the people you care about

Inmates having a beer, from The Shawshank Redemption

Not only did Andy do things, he focused on the things he was interested in doing, regardless of what other people thought.

Carving chess pieces, building a library, keeping his accounting skills sharp – he worked on them even while everyone else was just getting by; he worked on them even when nobody else was interested; he initiated the work himself.

“Prison time is slow time, so you do what you can to keep going. Some fellas collect stamps, others built matchstick houses. Andy built a library. Now he needed a new project. Tommy was it. It was the same reason he spent years shaping and polishing those rocks. The same reason he hung his fantasy girlies on the wall. In prison, a man will do ‘most anything to keep his mind occupied.” – Red

It isn’t just about “keeping our minds occupied”, it’s about keeping our minds occupied with what’s important to us.

More importantly: in a tough, bleak place like Shawshank prison, Andy found connection and solace in making other peoples’ lives better, whether it was the warden, the captain and guards, or his “colleagues”.

By helping others he was also helping himself, and the connections he forged allowed him to thrive. It made him useful to the people who mattered to him (and some that probably didn’t).

In the end it was also these connections that enabled him to escape in a brilliant moment of movie payback.

Be persistent and stay true to your dreams

To get a library set up Andy wrote a letter a week for 6 years to ask for it. After he managed to get that initial donation, he then wrote 2 letters a week and eventually scored regular funding to keep the library going. Without this incredible persistence, none of that would have happened.

In the larger picture, Andy worked secretly for over 20 years on his escape to Zihuatanejo, in what seemed to be the most impossible possible: digging his way out. Red “got the joke” when he say Andy’s rock hammer, but Andy was the one who got out and had the last laugh. All that despite the option to resign himself to prison, and despite the fact that his friend thought he was crazy. He stuck to his dream and it paid off.

Red sums it up well: “That’s all it takes really, pressure and time”.

Persistence and staying true to our dreams are never easy to do, but only by doing both can we even stand a chance to achieve what we want to do.

Treat people with politeness and respect, even if they seem nasty

Warden discovers Andy Dusfresne's tunnel, from The Shawshank Redemption

Despite horrible treatment at the hands of the warden, the caption and the guards, Andy was always polite, and was even there to help them when he could.

He respected the hierarchy and circumstances he was under, even if though he didn’t necessarily believe in it, and worked with the situation he was in rather than against it.

Life is full of unintended consequences

When Andy tossed his gun into the river it was to prevent himself from doing anything rash after he discovered his wife’s infidelity— but that ended up being the “convenient” fact that condemned him to prison.

Later, when he wanted to exchange his services for better prison conditions, and he wanted to help young Tommy; but a combination of unfortunate circumstances ended up killing Tommy instead.

We can and should do the best we can… but we also need to know things that don’t always turn out the way we think they will.

There is a place inside us that nobody can touch

Andy: That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?

Red: Well… I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it, though. Didn’t make too much sense in here.

Andy: No, here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.

Red: Forget?

Andy: That there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. It’s yours.

In our darkest and most difficult moments, it becomes even more important that we stay true to the things that are important to us. To stay alive Andy had to hold firm to who he was and what he believed in, despite mistreatment, despite sexual abuse, despite circumstances that were bleak and unjust.

It’s easy to look around us and think that that’s all there is to it, that we have to simply give into whatever situation we’re in.

But like Andy says, no matter what situation we’re in, there is always a part of us that cannot be touched unless we let others do so— a place where our deepest dreams reside, and where our most fundamental choices come from. It is the core of who we are, and is a place we should never ignore.

Redemption and salvation lie within

I’ve always wondered what the “redemption” in the title meant. In the story Andy isn’t guilty at all, so why does he need to be redeemed?

It turns how that he needed to be redeemed after all, not from a crime but from himself, but from his own thoughts. He admitted to Red that he felt responsible for his wife’s death even if he didn’t pull the trigger. To redeem himself, he had to learn to accept that fact, and had to realise too that he was “in the path of the tornado” and subject to forces in life that were not in his control.

Only then could he focus on what he could do: escape. We don’t really know when he finished digging that tunnel, and it’s possible that the had already finished it years before, but simply didn’t want to free himself from the prison because he felt he still had to pay for his “crime”.

Red also goes through something similar at the end. He sums it up beautifully for the parole board:

“There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are – but I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this man is all that’s left. I got to live with that.”

Both men had to come to an acceptance of their circumstances and what they did, and in the process free themselves from the prisons they had built in their minds.

The point is also echoed in the line that’s repeated throughout the movie: “Salvation lies within”. It’s easy to think that salvation or redemption lies “within” something else like the bible or in prison, but in the end it is in the work we must do ourselves, on the inside.

Final scene on the beach from The Shawshank Redemption

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