How Free are You?

11 11 2017

It seems a simple question. I was asked it by Professor Phil Harker during arguably the most influential inservice day of my career. Most people looked quizzically at the presenter, wondering if this was some kind of rhetorical opener, but he persisted. He probed into the audience inviting a response. There was none. So he narrowed the question down a bit more specifically: ‘How free were you to choose your clothes today for this inservice?’. Some offered that they had complete freedom, of course!

So he probed more. ‘So I notice none of you chose scuba outfits, or cricket gear, or hula skirts?’. Some offered that it was summer… way too hot! Or that they no longer fitted into their cricket gear or that they couldn’t bear the merciless ribbing from their colleagues! ‘What about dresses? Men, I noticed that no one chose this attire? A nice summer dress, maybe??’ was offered with a wry wink (this was in 1994, so it elicited laughter more than knowing nods!).

He expounded his point that we are as free as we feel we are. Within the constraints of comfort, social norms, feeling at ease with colleagues and being in a place of professional work, we were free. He outlined that we are also in a country where we probably have at least a full wardrobe of clothes. Our freedom is limited by what we own (or could borrow, perhaps?). In other countries, this choice might be a few sets of clothes or even one, for work purposes (as I found with teachers in the Ukraine in 2009, who would dutifully wash their ‘best’ clothes every night and wear the same set every day).

Yet few of us that day felt controlled about our clothing. This was his point. One which was borrowed from that great 20th Century existentialist, Viktor Frankl, so often poorly quoted throughout the internet. One of his main tenets was that no one else can actually control your emotions, it is a mere illusion, often borne of years of habit, when someone appears to ‘push your buttons’. No one can reach inside your Amygdala or Cerebral Cortex (the main centres of the brain involved with the processing of emotion) or squeeze hormones like Serotonin, Oxytocin, Dopamine and Cortisol, to influence such emotion. Ultimately we alone are responsible for the emotion we display. No one can ‘force’ us to be happy, angry, sad, confused or even hurt, as real as it might appear.

More importantly, Frankl experienced the holocaust of WW2 first hand as an incarcerated Jew in a German prison camp, and realised that no one can take away your hope or your dignity, it is yours to give. He saw many give up quickly and simply fade away in despair or die. Others seem to have almost superhuman resolve and resilience.

The Shawshank Redemption, a 1995 cult classic, adapted from the the Steven King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” remains one of the most critically acclaimed movies that never one a single Academy Award ( though nominated in seven categories). The central theme of the movie is about hope and the difference between those who cultivate it and those that let it wither when life gets pretty crappy.

Andy Dufresne, a well-heeled and educated financier discovers his wife’s infidelity, drowns his sorrows in drink and, with his revolver in hand in his parked car outside his home contemplates the predicament. He doesn’t have much time to think about it, however, since his wife and the golf pro she had been intimate with that evening were shot brutally in the bedroom by an intruder. Andy, innocent as he was, was surrounded by enough circumstantial evidence to be convicted and is given a life sentence at Shawshank Penitentiary.

Throughout the highs and lows of his time in that institution, for there were glimpses of light, hope and fulfilment in that dark place, Andy grows and changes as a character, but always, consistently, through the movie, he keeps his hope and his dignity and resists the urge to allow the dark circumstance into his inner world. One of my favourite images of the movie was always this one:

Shawshank Beer

It was early in his incarceration where, by doing a favour for Captain Hadley, the Head Prison Guard, he was able to earn a break for a work detail of prisoners putting bitumen on the roof with some icy cold brewskis to sweeten the deal. Andy, of course, eschews any refreshment, stating that he had (rather wisely) given up alcohol, whilst his inmate friends enjoyed them. That image, right there, is of a man for whom circumstance cannot taint his hope and humanity. For that moment in the movie, he and his mates feel once again like free men and escape those prison walls.

It remained an inspiration for me for many years. Despite whatever circumstance I was in, the capacity to choose a reaction to it, whether to let it poison you or motivate you or galvanise you into action or to fall in humility before our saviour in desperation is all ours. All of us are in prisons of some description in our bodies, minds and lives. The freedom we feel is directly proportional to our response to the limitations on our lives. Do you suffer chronic illness? Mental illness? Abusive relationships? Loveless marriages or children with whom you have trials and tribulations? A workplace that is oppressive? A boss who is impossible to work for? Yet we are able to transcend whatever prison we are in if we refuse to yield to the temptation to be a victim or to respond in learned helplessness. It could even be that you are able to forgive those who may never, ever, have the strength of character or human dignity to ask you for forgiveness for words or actions they have effected on you which have contributed to that ‘prison’.

Recently I realised, however, that the image needs replacing. Andy was still in his prison at that time. If you are one of the minority that has yet to see this classic: extreme spoiler alert! Andy gets out of prison eventually (in pretty spectacular fashion!!). You see, I have finally realised that it is important to look around once in a while and realise when the prison is no longer there. Some people act, for all intents and purposes, as though a circumstance, tragedy or situation is still current. Sure they may have stoic faces, resolve and hope, but they are unable to accept their freedom. In the movie, Morgan Freeman’s character, ‘Red’ calls such people ‘institutionalised’. First they hate they place, then they tolerate the place until finally, the need the place to feel normal. Well, there comes a time when you look around and you realise you are truly free and that your hope has not been in vain.

At these glorious times, we are able to see that life and pain happen to us all in a fallen world. If we are wise, we live the old ‘Serenity Prayer’, made famous by ’12 step programs’ worldwide:

“Lord please give me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Poignant, profound, beautiful. I realise that I have experienced (and contributed) pain in people’s lives close to me, many of them. Mostly, I have made amends with those people for the wrong that I have done to them and the ways in which I have fallen short as a decent human being with them. I am someone who needs short accounts with people and am a firm believer in restoring relationship and asking forgiveness where necessary. There is such beautiful freedom in humility. There is also great personal pain and reflection in such times. We realise that we are fallen, broken, crappy people sometimes who unintentionally hurt each other, especially those closest to us. Sometimes the other party is in denial, hurt, pain or bitterness that may present itself as anger, resentment, projection, blame shifting, victimhood or even vindictive obsession. Our part in that freedom is to realise that, ultimately, we choose how much we ‘let Shawshank in’.

This season has been for me one of intense emotional pain, some frustration, confusion and even despair. It has also been one of the deepest periods of personal growth that I think I have ever had in my life. The feeling of being trapped, of being alone (but perhaps not ‘lonely’ as you find solace in your own company and our saviour, perhaps) and the lack of any horizon in the foreseeable future could hardly be more like the unforgiving damp stone walls of Shawshank, yet hope, faith, humility and forgiveness usually helps us find our way out. True freedom is when you realise you aren’t in Shawshank anymore.

So it is that I have a new image to inspire me (and I hope you, too) from this classic movie:

Zihuataneyo Shawshank

Zihuatanejo. At this point in the movie, Andy’s dreams are realised. His life is forever changed by his time in Shawshank. We sometimes carry the scars, and the pain still in those scars, for a long time, maybe even for life. My mother always used to say, regarding the body’s sensation of pain, ‘it is your body’s way of telling you that you are still alive’.

Sometimes I am still in a bit of pain. I am sure that sometimes those whom I have hurt (hand on heart, always unintentionally) still feel pain in their heart. I am repentant for the pain that I have caused others and hold in my heart the forgiveness for those whom I have allowed to hurt me. We live in a fallen world, it is bound to happen from time to time. Now, however, it is time for Zihuatanejo, the peace and joy that comes when hope is realised.

This part of the journey has been long, decades long, and this week Shawshank in many ways becomes a memory only. Time to embrace Zihuatanejo.

I wish you all peace, hope and serenity. 🙂