“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson,
The film “The Shawshank Redemption” observes a painstakingly common issue in the prison systems — and at a larger scale, in society itself — and that is, the problem of “institutionalization”, as the film puts it.
In the context of the film, the characters are institutionalized, whereby their behaviors, mindsets and worldviews become rigidified in their years and decades of imprisonment. They become afraid of speaking their own minds, and they would have to ask for the authority’s permission to do nearly everything, for fear that they would get punished.
As a result, they become afraid of the world outside. If and when they are released, they couldn’t cope without the prison system that they were so dependent on. They have no identity, no sense of self, except for what they had been given in prison. And so they end up committing suicide, or committing crime again so that they could be sent back “home”.
Enter Andy Dufresne, the well-read and stoic protagonist who is wrongfully imprisoned. Despite the cruel twist of events, he refuses to give up his inner freedom during his imprisonment. Even better, he uses this as an opportunity to serve his fellow inmates in redeeming their inner freedom, by expanding the prison library and helping them get their high school diplomas.
On one occasion, Andy gets himself into trouble for playing a recording of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in the warden’s office. He makes use of the public address system, allowing the entire prison to listen to the music.
As the film’s narrator, Red, describes the event, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. 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 in Shawshank felt free.”
Upon returning from solitary confinement for his act of rebellion, Andy tells his fellow inmates of how he had Mozart’s music playing in his mind and heart the entire time, making the punishment much more bearable.
“That’s the beauty of music,” he says. “They can’t get that from you.”
Red, in particular, disagrees with Andy, saying that his appreciation for music doesn’t make much sense in prison.
Andy responds, “Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget — that there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone — that there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch, that’s yours — hope.”
Sure, prison may be a bit of an extreme example. But it’s far from uncommon for us to experience a similar sense of conformity and rigidity from our parents, from school, and from society at large.
We have likely been taught to think a certain way, to act a certain way, to live a certain way. Without us realizing, we might spend the rest of our lives based on metrics by which society deems us as successful or not — that if you don’t have a “prestigious” job, if you don’t drive a nice car, if you aren’t in a relationship, you aren’t worth much.
We obsess over these things, when deep inside, we know they aren’t actually going to fulfill us. We feel an inner void — a giant crater in our lives because we aren’t paying attention to our own voice that guides us on our values, the things that do matter to us, that do make us happy.
But we’ve been taught to temper down that voice our whole lives. So when we hear it, we ignore it. We distract ourselves with more obsession, we end up feeling more miserable, and so we distract ourselves even more. And the cycle goes on, ad infinitum.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance”, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within…Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.”
He adds, “These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…The virtue in most request is conformity.”
Fortunately, we can reclaim our inner freedom, or our ability to recognize and trust our own voice when we hear it.
And that’s why we have art in this world. That’s why we have books, music, films — everything else under the Sun that empower us to think for ourselves and to live by our own values.
As shown in the film, through art is how the Shawshank Prison is redeemed. Especially through books and music, Andy is able to guide his fellow inmates that life is much more than what they know inside the prison walls.
And it holds the same for our lives as well. Experiencing and dedicating ourselves to an art can melt away the rigid prison walls that we have built in our own minds.
Jimi Hendrix, who is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest instrumentalists, reflected on the visceral effects of music in particular. He wrote, “A musician, if he’s a messenger, is like a child who hasn’t been handled too many times by man, hasn’t had too many fingerprints across his brain. That’s why music is so much heavier than anything you ever felt.”
“The deeper you get into it, the more sacrifices you have to make,” he said. “Someone is going to have to go back to his childhood and think about what they really felt, really wanted before the fingerprints of their fathers and mothers got a hold of them, or before the smudges of school or progress.”
This is also the reason why suppression happens, of course. Book-banning and book-burning are sadly still a thing. So is censorship, even in places in the world where “free speech” is supposedly encouraged. Because it’s always much easier to manage a society that thinks the same thoughts and acts in the same way.
But good art always finds its way through such things, even if eventually. And it never goes away.
Understand just how huge a blessing it is to have such art so easily available to you. In less fortunate parts of the world, there are too many people who are willing to risk their lives to experience the same blessing.
That inner freedom is yours to reclaim. You merely have to decide that you want to.
To quote from Emerson’s “Self Reliance” essay again, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius.”