What makes the difference between those who can use their freedom – and those who can’t?
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Change is life. How does anyone grow to resent change?
In Brooks’ case in The Shawshank Redemption (1994 dir: Frank Darabont) it is because he has not been part of it. For many of us it is when we can’t make use of the change, when we can’t be part of it. With old age many start to resent change, the most spectacular manifestation of the driving force that is wanting. Seeing others wanting things is a reminder that we no longer want anything. And many of us don’t even have prison as an excuse for falling out of life, for being left behind by change, for not wanting anything, for forgetting how to want.
Prison forces you to hand over control over every aspect of your existence. Where to live, what to do, what to eat, whom to meet. Whether to start a relationship or have children. Whether you can buy a house. As the eloquent guard put it “You eat when we say you eat and you piss when we say you piss.” Indeed, we internalize these external commands as our own desires to the point where we end up needing permission to do it.
Freedom is a blank page, the liberty to make all these choices for yourself – and then have only yourself to blame. But what good is freedom when you don’t know how to make use of it? What good is freedom if you don’t even know how to want?
If you reach the point when you can effortlessly blend into the things that others want you to want, when not-wanting things and wanting what you’re supposed to want, wanting what you’re allowed to want have fully supplanted the space where your own wanting should be. All the room in your existence is filled up running after things that are required of you and avoiding punishments and disapproval, so freedom becomes a painful reminder that you are neglecting something. Even the freedom of others.
Prison forces you to accept control over every aspect of your existence – except one. The Shawshank Redemption calls it Hope.
When the protagonist, Andy Dufresne uses his privileged position as the wardens’ pet to play opera through the loudspeakers, he has to spend the longest period ever in solitary confinement. Upon his release he is unexpectedly upbeat and explains to his fellow inmates that “there is something inside they can’t get to, that they can’t touch.” He calls is hope. Red tells him to forget hope – it’s a dangerous thing. “Hope can drive a man insane” inside a prison.
The ultimate question of The Shawshank Redemption is: What makes the difference between those who can use their freedom – and those who can’t? What made Brooks fear when he was released and ultimately end his own life – and what made Andy Dufresne come out at the other end?
At this questions the bumper stickers let us down. Our narrator, Red, leaves us with a lame rambling about birds and feathers. “I have to remind myself,” says Red after Andy makes his miraculous escape, “that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, he part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, they place you live in is much more drab and empty that they’re gone.”
Of the three characters, Brooks, Red and Andy, one is released – and commits suicide. The second, Andy, escapes and immediately starts using his freedom. He knows what he wants. He has a very concrete plan. He wants that hotel in Mexico, he wants to renovate an old boat, and he wants to do it with the money he can steal from the corrupt prison management.
But the third inmate, Red, is on the fence. He calls people who got used to prison “institutionalized”, becoming dependent on the walls, as he puts it. In other words, dependent on rules, limits, control.
Those who forgot how to want need reminders. For Red, it was Andy. Not his escape – that didn’t make Red suddenly hungry for freedom. But before he left, Andy gave Red a gift. The gift of reminding him how to want. In this case, wanting to know.
There are very basic things that we are born wanting. We want food, we have an appetite. Later on, we develop a sex drive – another organic desire that can teach us how to want, how to develop more complex desires, and how to navigate life and other people to get to it. Prisons (and prisons of the mind) get in the way of our desires. They control what we eat just like religions control our sex drives and makes us lose our sense of orientation to replace it with their own interests.
But there is one desire beneath all, the one that is easiest to stroke, the thing that takes the most effort to kill: the desire to know. Wanting to know. And when Red is presented with a mystery, what is buried under that oak on that field, he is inspired to want something despite his efforts to never hope. He wants to know.
And that little thread is pulled until it leads him towards a life that may have some goals in it, goals that no one else sets for him. A life where he has to want things for himself. Hope.
Maybe hope – as used in The Shawshank Redemption – is just a manifestation of wanting things. And that is dangerous indeed, when you are imprisoned and have no control over the outcome. Hoping for a miracle, outside intervention, or anything that is not in our control to achieve is dangerous indeed. It does drive people mad and away from reality. But Andy had something else in mind when he was hoping: he was already digging a hole to escape the prison.
The desire to know is primal. Babies are born with insatiable desire to know, to try, to experience. Prisoners, on the other hand, even prisoners of dictatorship tend to kill off that desire in themselves. How many times have I heard “I don’t even want to know” when I tried to explain emerging autocracy to those who were slowly boiling in it. And their wish to not know may not just be the symptom of feeling helpless against the atrocities and injustice. It may also be a sign that they are working hard to cauterize that part of their mind because knowing in dangerous. Not only does it make you feel that you should do something – it reminds you how to want.
Addicted to impact
When Andy Dufresne receives crates of books after six years of petitioning the government for a better equipped prison library, he doubles down. I would say that the spell of helplessness is broken, but it is not the case with him. Six years could have been enough to make him give up. To make him unlearn how to want. But it didn’t happen. And when his perseverance paid off, Andy got addicted to results. He got addicted to impact. Rather than being contented with the little money for the library and the first few books, he doubled down.
“It only took six years. From now on I’ll write two letters a week, instead of one.”
The enemy of learned helplessness, the enemy of unlearning how to want because we feel helpless to get it, is addiction. Getting hooked on impact.
In the case of learned helplessness the victim unlearns the link between his actions and ever having an impact. In the case of addiction, on the other hand, the person sees an opportunity to have an impact even when there is none. Not having results slowly breaks one down. Having results makes one double down. When addiction is not regarding harmful things but merely getting things done, it is the most positive thing ever.
Finding the pleasurable high of our actions having an impact and seeking that high over and over again, even when it looks unlikely, even when it is not possible.
Images: The Shawshank Redemption (1994 dir: Frank Darabont)