“The man who has no inner life is the slave to his surroundings.”
In our age of social media, our lives are made more public than ever before. It gives us the impression that life is ultimately a stage, and that we are the star of our story. We present ourselves in our best light, as society tells us that we are only what we look like on the outside. The boring and mundane parts, which inevitably determine what our life is really like, aren’t so worth capturing. Tragically, the person that we fail to know well is our own selves, as we conform to the likes of others.
In his essay, “Self-Reliance”, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that human beings have been in the business of making us feel this way since the dawn of time, saying that “The voices which we hear in solitude…Grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world…Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members.” He also said, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
And that brings us to the question, “Who are we when we are alone?”
The etymology of the word “character” comes from the ancient Greek, referring to an engraving or stamping instrument. Character, then, is something that is deeply stamped within us that we are compelled to act in certain ways, beyond our conscious thought or control. Character is who we really are when no one is looking — It’s who we are without having to try hard.
Instead of expending so much effort on your personality, or how others perceive you, invest instead in your character. Before chasing whatever ambitions you may have, work all you can to become a good person — Because that’s the glue that binds everything together. Once that is in place, other parts of your life will follow.
Our character often presents itself when we’re under pressure, when we’re tested with the many overwhelming challenges that life throws at us. In his study of the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Pierre Hadot posits a metaphor of an “inner citadel” to help us understand Aurelius’s practice of philosophy. Just as a citadel is strong, secure, and protected, that’s what it means to have that absolute security in our consciousness, to have the presence of mind to maintain equanimity in the face of life’s challenges — To have an inner fortress inside us that no adversity can ever break down.
In the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption”, the character Andy is a portrait of what it means to have an inner life, or a place inside of you that gives you refuge, and the will to keep on going. Being wrongly sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, he shows us that when the world seems to take everything from you, there’s still one domain that no one can ever get to — What goes on inside you.
Another character in the movie, Red, said of prison life, “They send you here for life. And that’s exactly what they take.” Musing about Andy, he said, “He had a quiet way about him — A walk and a talk, that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled…like a man in the park without a care or a worry in the world. Like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.”
In a particular scene in the movie, Andy gets himself into trouble by playing Mozart on a loudspeaker in the warden’s office, allowing everyone in the prison to listen as well. It was a brave and dangerous act, because it allowed the prisoners to feel, which was exactly that the prison authorities wanted to take away.
Reflecting on that moment, Red said, “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away…And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
After Andy was released from solitary confinement for his rebellious stunt, he told his friends that he had Mozart to keep him company in his dark and lonesome cell. A friend asked him, “So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?”. Tapping his head and his heart, Andy responded, “It was in here. That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you.”
When he was told that music didn’t make much sense in prison, Andy said, “Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget…That there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. There’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch..That’s yours.”
Red asked, “What are you talking about?,” to which Andy responded, “Hope.”
According to Viktor Frankl, the last freedom that anyone can take from us is our freedom to choose. In the gap between stimulus and response, is where our inner life lies. And it’s our responsibility on ourselves to widen that gap as much as we can.
While prison life successfully stripped away the individuality of the prisoners in Shawshank, Andy kept his inner life alive at heart. Using his pain to change for the better, he helped the other prisoners find hope and build their inner lives. Among other things, he even built a prison library, and helped the prisoners get their high school diplomas. It can be argued that the title, “Shawshank Redemption” doesn’t refer to Andy’s escape from the prison, but rather, the redemption of the Shawshank prisoners, who learned to find freedom and hope within themselves because of him.
So, what can we do to invest in our inner life?
Well, the most important thing is to continuously seek knowledge — Not just information, but wisdom that can be put into practice for your betterment. Constantly be in the search of this wisdom in books, in poems, even in movies and songs — Basically just any experience in your life that’s worth learning from.
As the philosopher Seneca wrote, “My advice is really this : what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application — Not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech — And learn them so well that words become works.”
Other than that, always place yourself in the struggle of putting all of that knowledge into practice. In Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, phrases such as “always remember” recur some 40 times over the course of the text, as he himself struggled to act in accordance to his wisdom. He reminded himself in an entry, “Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you.”
Do something to keep your knowledge deeply ingrained in you. Benjamin Franklin had a character-developing system where he would write down a chart of virtues that he wanted to practice, such as silence, sincerity, and frugality. And every day, he would go through those virtues and mark the boxes if he managed to put them into practice.
Maybe you don’t have to do the same thing, but at least, be invested in something that hones your character. Keep a journal, reflect on what you’ve learned, and what you could improve on. Or you could keep a commonplace book, which certainly helps a lot too.
It’s always worth it, to have an inner sanctuary for you to find strength and inspiration from. While most people could only see what’s immediately in front of them, you could see much further. When others give up, you find hope in the most unlikely situations, and quite naturally, you feel the need to help others do the same for themselves too.
As Viktor Frankl wrote of the resilient men and women who survived the Nazi concentration camps, “They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.”