“It’s a terrible thing to live in fear. All I want to do is to be back where things make sense . . . where I won’t have to be afraid all of the time.” – – Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding in “The Shawshank Redemption”
When I was about two years sober, I left AA meetings behind for awhile and began attending ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) instead. While away from AA, I was still quite proud of my sobriety, and I thought rightly so, and thus spoke of it often during my sharing times in small groups. After my Friday night ACA meeting ended one time, I noticed a woman named Jean, sort of a patriarch of the group, standing a short distance away and shaking her head at me. I moved to satisfy my curiosity and asked her what was up. “You really think you’re hot shit with that addiction of yours,don’t you,” she said. I said the first thing that came in to my head. “Huh?” Jean then casually pointed her finger and motioned around the entire space of the room we were in and said, “Point out one person in this room who doesn’t have an addiction of some kind.” Theoretically, I understood what she meant immediately and felt a bit embarrassed. Experientially, it took quite a few years before I got the full gist of what she was saying.
I first saw “Shawshank” in late 1994, the same year it was released. Though I know it kinda bombed at the box office, I was intrigued while at a Blockbuster Video and read the back cover of the movie box which described the film as “a movie about friendship.” Even upon first viewing, I found that description to be aiming a bit low. Recently I saw an old review by Roger Ebert in which he gives his opinion of the flick as “an allegory about being in a hopeless situation.” I find that to be more palatable, yet only a beginning. The prison, quite simply, represents the human ego to me, the rest of the characters thoughts in the mind of the lead character Andy DuFresne, and the escape plan Andy’s ingenious and inspired route to be freed from his egoic and addictive patterns of behavior. I’m not talking about the usual cop-out of patterns heaped upon us in our childhood so we can blame our parents for our actions. I”m talking about something much more primal. Most of us act out of very basic patterns of security, sensation, and power addictions which subtly are used to ensure that the outside world is giving us the “good” feelings we need. Insidious as these grooves are, I am in no way suggesting that anyone purposely acts like an addict. What I am suggesting is that as a partial way to maintain the status quo, and peace, many of us (ok, all of us) kiss off addictive behavior as “ok” so as to stave off needing to confront the issue and go through uncomfortable growth work.
“These walls. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on ’em. They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take – – the part that matters anyway.” Thus states the character Red after a fellow inmate puts up an enormous fight to commit a crime while still in prison so that he won’t have to be released into a world of freedom, a world he has absolutely no point of reference for. As a kid, I remember the number of times dad “lost the paycheck,” and thus we sometimes went without food. More often than not we were fed, but were really, really pinched in regard to getting new clothing or going on trips. My dad got me a used,worn out baseball glove when I was in fourth grade that I somehow managed to make last til I was 14. We kids grew up thinking this type of thing was normal, and in fact when occasionally confronted by an outsider about Dad’s drinking, any one of us could be heard to say,”It’s not so bad,” or the equivalent. Of course it wasn’t so bad. We were talking about Dad, after all. Although his behavior hurt us regularly, we defended him to the hilt to the outside world. Still, carrying out the same primal instincts of protecting my dad and those like it, such as resisting what the “next right thing,” might be for personal growth, I can no longer blame on my parents or family. My walls are still intact. On occasion, rather than confront a friend on what may be harmful behavior, or more commonly, when I don’t want to look at my own reflection, I’ll take the path of least resistance and leave things alone. My walls are very dependable.
I started drinking when I was 12 years old. I got sober when I was 31. Inside my 31 year old body was the emotional maturity of a 12 year old. Make no mistake: when regular drinking begins, emotional growth stops. Then imagine my surprise when I learn that drinking is nothing more than a symptom. As each year of recovery has passed, and I’ve inched my way along to at least some semblance of adulthood, I see more and more what lengths I’ll still go to in order to not confront my patterns. People often have an image of alcoholics as skid row derelicts and are then surprised to find one in their own office. Speaking for myself, while still drinking and being in the work force, I can proudly say that I produced superior work. What I didn’t understand until after I quit was that one of the main drivers of my excellence was my need to ensure that I had a steady supply of money to drink. Bills somhetimes didn’t get paid, but I’d be damned if I didn’t have alcohol money.
Likewise, the more embarrassing image to maintain is one that belies what goes on inside consistently in sobriety. I recently picked up a copy of “The Handbook To Higher Consciousness.” Upon reading a few pages, I had that “Oh, my God,” reaction for the first time since I read AA’s Big Book twenty-something years ago. Somebody wrote a book about me. The difference is, this book doesn’t target only chemical addicts. It points out dogged lower-level patterns of behavior that ALL of us partake of, those that satisfy the aforementioned needs to maintain levels of security, sensation, and power. All of them dependent on what other people and situations do. If a situation or person doesn’t pan out as I want it to, I will notice one of my lower level areas flaring up, and then try to forcefully control the situation to satisfy my need and get back to “normal.” This is the continuing work laid out not just of addicts, this is all of us.
Imagine the most amazing of everything: sunsets, sex, money, fame, glory, family, the absolute depth of a mothers love for her child. Imagine ALL of these things going on in your life all at the same time. Bliss! And CONSTANTLY! Then add in an astonishing thought: maybe, just maybe, even as amazing beyond description as all of this is, ALL of it is only a SHADOW of what’s possible. That’s prison.
In Plato’s story of The Cave, Plato is actually writing about the life of his mentor, Socrates. As the story goes, a group of men are sentenced to live their lives in a cave, and facing away from the cave entrance. Thus all they ever see are shadows on the wall, and not having any other point of reference, experience the shadows as the real world. One day one of the prisoners undoes his chains and escapes. To his amazement, he sees immediately that there is an entirely different and brighter world outside the cave. There are real people, and a warm fire and a warm sun that were actually casting the shadows from passersby that all of the prisoners took for granted as everything that was real and available. So the escaped prisoner goes back excitedly to tell the other prisoners. Upon his telling them of the other world, they kill him. The possibility of freedom from their prison was not only more than the other prisoners could comprehend, it was far too frightening to be loosed from their metaphoric chains, the only world they were familiar with. The ego/shadow world is one that we all defend ferociously, and unconsciously so. “Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on ’em.” I’m not pouting because the woman I wanted to be with isn’t giving me attention, there’s something wrong with her. My best friend didn’t just make that big mistake, and even if he/she did it’s no big deal. In order to placate and satisfy my lower level addictive thought patterns, they need to be defended to stay alive. If it involves another person who I rely on to supply me with good feelings, the easier the defense. If it involves a situation that does the same, I can come up with any number of reasons why nobody else understands that my workplace is Utopia or why the group I hated five minutes ago because I wasn’t their center of attention is all of a sudden the best thing since baked bread because somebody else is attacking them and only I get to do that. Plus they just gave me five seconds of attention. My addiction has been satisfied. Sadly, my good feeling didn’t come from my heart. It came from a shadow.
The Andy DuFresne character in “Shawshank” represents to me the spark of divinity in the “right mind” of the human ego that an individual discovers and then fans repeatedly. Along the way, grisly things might happen, such as the “Sisters,” the sadistic group that repeatedly attacks Andy in the film. While Andy doesn’t like what’s happening, he comes to accept it as a “normal” part of his prison/ego, and maintains his sanity primarily due the fact that he’s discovered his way out of prison, and is keeping it in the forefront of his mind. Serendipity surfaces and takes care of the problem for him, again due to his unyielding focus. This part of the film is so profound to me as those events or patterns, or regular events, or even people in our lives that we accept as ok only because we haven’t discovered another point of reference for the situation or person’s behavior. We become resigned to what’s going on as an external and “normal” situation, thus giving ourselves permission to ignore the addictive pattern that got us into the situation in the first place. Andy however, is given the gift of desperation, and nineteen years later, escapes with the assistance of one tiny rock hammer. One tiny thought. One second focused away from the addictive pattern and as these newer thoughts mount and multiply, he escapes to freedom. And the world around him (or us) is altered considerably. Change isn’t always without casualties. The warden’s suicide and the sadistic guard being taken away are nicely symbolic of how patterns we thought were just a part of life, eventually fall away. Even some we may think were in our best interest. While AA was in its fledgling stage, Dr. Bob Smith was heard to tell his cohort Bill Wilson, “and remember, Bill–the good is the enemy of the best. Let’s not screw this thing up.”
I’ve been working with “Handbook To Higher Consciousness” for a few weeks now. So difficult are it’s principles that I’ve already put it aside three or four times and told myself “Nah. This isn’t for me.” Of course not It’s challenging everything within me that I’ve come to know as true. Oddly, it’s not giving me cause to shout off the rooftops. It is instead giving birth to a different type of compassion than I’ve ever felt before. I’m sure not tooting my own horn: my friend Judy once told me, “Living on the razor’s edge doesn’t make life easier, it often makes it harder.” What I’m noticing is that everyone else’s addictive patterns are becoming more evident to me . . . I’m finding out how alike we all are. All of us in the same “Shawshank.” On occasion I’ll balk, go back to my corner and meditate on what an a-hole the other person is. Such are the ways of progress. If I didn’t make mistakes, I wouldn’t be learning. What’s emerging, with great difficulty, is an entirely different view of the world. It would appear that my rock hammer, like Andy’s, has also been worn down to a nub. I’m finally heading home. Aspiring to a spiritual life includes so much more mundane day-to-day work than I ever imagined. Keeping the final outcome of “Shawshank” in mind, with Andy escaping, “crawling though a river of the most shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine,” then Andy going from bank to bank collecting his dues. Yeah. I like that imagery. It will offset the mundane. And it all started with the lead character chipping away a tiny piece of his prison wall almost by “accident”, a wall much more fragile than he ever thought possible. I can do that. “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” That’s goddamn right.
“I find that I’m so excited I can hardly sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement that only a free man can feel. A free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope that I can make it across the border. I hope to meet my Friend and shake His hand. I hope that the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope .. .” – – “Red”