“You look exhausted. Everything okay?”
“All good. Was up late last night. Didn’t get enough sleep.”
“Lucky you. We were both out cold by 10.”
“Not that. The game ended and I was about to turn off the TV when… you know… I flipped around, and it was on. Once it’s on, I have to watch it. I just have to watch it.”
“Man, I get you. It’s always Shawshank time. Morning, noon and night!”
Over the hedgerows, on the sidelines, in line at Starbucks, the suburban dads of America speak the language of love… love for Shawshank Redemption. We watch it, extol it, finding meaning in every frame. Solace, remorse and exultation all packed into one movie. It’s a national, inspirational epidemic inflicting men of a certain age, saddled with mortgage payments and fertilizer bags.
I am one of those men. From start to finish, I can’t turn it off. Walking out the door for a family dinner? I will stay and watch the last ten minutes ignoring the beeping horns and furious texts from my wife. Sweaty from the gym? I will sit on the edge of my bed hypnotized by Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice, letting the running shower steam up the entire second floor. Let the house fall down and crumble. I remain transfixed by each pebble silently falling from Tim Robbins’ pants.
And I am not alone. My fellow suburban brothers feel the joy of every word, and the pain of knowing we must watch every second, every time it shows up on cable. Somehow we identify with this man, Andy Dufresne, betrayed and wrongly accused, who outwits “the man” and ends up living the sweet life on the shores of the Pacific. He is our symbolic everyman, our man of the hour (actually, two hours and twenty-two minutes).
But why do see ourselves in him and Red? What’s in their stories that gives moral clarity to our own stories? It can’t just be the old good wins over evil, angel/devil allegory. Or a self-help primer offering homespun homilies about bad things happening to good people. Too simple, too rote. There’s something more under that rock than just money and a letter. What is it?
Could it be that we, middle-aged, middle-income men knee deep in the middle of the suburbs, also face a lifetime controlled by a system out of our own control? Trapped not behind iron bars but behind the inflexible picket fences of social conformity… and breadwinner-and-watering can rules? Ruled by the daily, monotonous routines that govern our days from sunrise to sunset?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because many of us commit our lives to corporations where stagnant pay raises and managerial performance reviews determine our career paths, and lives. Traffic-snarled parkways and gravel driveways that watch us come and go, back and forth and back again. The unshackling only coming when we bash through the brick-and-mortar and leap toward self-employment. Or, more likely, when we take that early retirement package and run to the planned communities of sunshine and sunscreen.
Through Andy, we are set free. Like Andy, free to wade through the muck and mire, and come out refreshed and renewed. In Andy, able to use our wit and wiles to find subversive, subtle ways to cook the books in our favor. To take the money and run. Able to see the bigger picture beyond the wallpapered walls and gutter guards that define our existence.
I wonder, though, what would Andy’s life be like if his wife had not cheated… if he were not found guilty? He was a respected banker, a man ready to live his life in accordance with all we hold dear. Would he have been so resilient dealing with the corporate rat race? Would he have tapped into that steely inner strength while erecting a tree house or staining his deck? Would he be as big as life living a small-town existence?
Shawshank uplifts me… and unnerves me. I am fortified with every tap, tap, tap of the chisel offering freedom. I am buoyed by the blue waters lapping at the bare feet of Red and Andy. I am overcome with joy as Red opens that box and finds a path toward salvation.
But those final scenes also keep me up well past the end of the movie. Am I living my life in a manner dictated by the decisions of others, or of my own choosing? Have I faced what life has thrown my way and charted a course for myself, the ones I love, that has purpose and meaning? Is there a life beyond the manicured hedgerows of my life?
Maybe I just need to watch Shawshank again to figure it all out. Heck, it’s just a click away.