This year has been hard to predict. 2020’s onslaught of fresh horrors have dealt bad hand after bad hand. So much so that it might not be an exaggeration to say that’s changed the lives of everyone in “civilized” society. It’s not outrageous to say that our homes, and our daily routines, were turned into a sort of prison -enclosed, monitored, and dictated by authoritarians. And through the madness of this year I’ve stayed focused on one goal, one all-consuming idea…escape.
Escape planning, as many of us are doing, is exceedingly difficult when the scenario is so tightly controlled (travel bans, lockdowns, curfews, forced closures, and the rest); not to mention constantly evolving.
If we were escaping from a literal prison, rather than just a metaphorical one, I’d be timing the guards, tracking schedules, and finding ways to get what we need from greedy gatekeepers. Unfortunately, the world in 2020 may feel like a prison, but its guards and gatekeepers are anything but predictable.
Still, the entire point of this escape metaphor is to create a spell to turn our fairly average expatriation into a hero’s journey; with an epic story arc, a glorious climax, and a happy ending.
We’re not just moving, we’re like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, executing a daring escape and disappearing to paradise.
And in these troubled, unpredictable times, it’s Andy’s energy we need. His understated genius, his attention to detail, and his patience were all key elements of his success. Yet in the end, it was his willingness to slog through shit (literally) to achieve his goals, that set him free.
I suspect that those of us who’ve decided to escape the mainstream, to get the fuck out of the prison we call modern life, can learn much from Andy Dufresne…
Play It Close To The Chest
Andy was so secretive about his plans that no one had a clue until his grand plan was a grand success and he was long, long gone. Secrecy is the key to success in many ventures; commercial, political, revolutionary -even spiritual ones- and all rely on secrecy.
The 48 Laws Of Power, besides being an ethical quagmire of a book, has an elegant quote on the matter of secrecy that has haunted me since I first read it…
Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelop them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.Robert Greene, 48 Laws Of Power
The book’s tone is intentionally cringe-inducing, to be sure, but the point is still well made.
“If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense.”
There are all kinds of people with no concern for anyone’s interest but their own. There are all kinds of people with no respect for personal agency and freedom. As aspiring escapees, like Andy Dufresne, we may have to endure all kinds of betrayals, insults, and injustices until we can eventually break free.
Andy even withheld his plans from his oldest friend, and fellow inmate, Red, whose own fears and limited thinking might have compromised Andy’s chances of success.
It’s a funny thing to say while blogging about our plans, but I try not to discuss my desire to escape too widely in my regular life. On this blog, however, I’m choosing to expose myself in a limited way to encourage my fellow inmates to start planning their own escape.
The people who know us personally and professionally remain on a need to know basis. Sharing ideas prematurely puts the people that rely on you in uncomfortable situations. There’ll come a time soon when it’s to our advantage to communicate our plans to bosses, clients, and our respective networks; but it doesn’t do any good now.
It’s Useful To Be Underestimated
Tim Robbins’ Dufresne is so understated, and so unexpected, that he’s able to make his epic escape without arousing any suspicion from the self-involved warden or brutish guards. There’s good medicine in this story.
Being underestimated is advantageous in many situations if not taken to an extreme. Appearing to be easy prey is never desirable -but who doesn’t love the unlikely hero that wins unexpectedly?
Andy’s first big move in the joint was to provide financial advice to the excessively violent Captain Hadley, head of the prison guard, who’d come into an inheritance and was set to lose half of it in taxes. Dufresne’s quick talking nearly got him thrown a roof but the risk paid off and eventually earned him protected status.
He did the taxes of all the guards in his prison, and the neighboring prisons, as a way to earn himself protection and a little extra latitude. Over time Andy nurtured that latitude into a lapse in oversight -he lulled the guards into a false sense of security- which eventually enabled him to escape under their noses.
If he’d ever given them a reason not to trust him, or exposed how strong his will really was, it would have been impossible for Andy to tunnel his way out of his cell with only a Rita Hayworth poster to cover his tracks.
Make Friends Not Getaway Partners
Red is unquestionably Andy’s closest friend, after decades of co-incarceration. The two shared many things, clearly had each other’s back, and clung to sanity through their mutual admiration. Still Andy never confided his plan in Red. He didn’t try to talk Red into coming along.
Andy did share his dreams of paradise. He tried to get Red to imagine himself as having more options than the system would have him believe. He spoke of an inner strength, an unconquerable part of our spirit that can’t be dominated by authority…
“There’s something inside they can’t get to; they can’t touch. Hope.”
But Red’s mind is clouded by hopelessness and he rejects the idea too quickly…
“Hope is a dangerous thing…”
The exchange that signals to Andy that Red’s still too attached to the system of his own oppression to see the possibilities that Andy sees. To Andy, escape isn’t just a possibility, it’s inevitable, given enough time and persistence.
Like Andy, we can’t take anyone with us when we make our escape, but we can instill the hope to dream and show them the way.
Cater To Authority When Necessary
When Andy realized he could trade his financial expertise for special treatment, he discovered the key to his eventual freedom. Authority always revels in its own power and self-importance. Like Andy, we can learn to cater to authority when it affords us their increased negligence.
By finding a role to play right at the heart of the Warden’s corrupt little empire, Andy not only earned protection, he gained his captors’ trust and the benefit of their negligence as well.
His protected position came at the cost of his compliance within a corrupt system. It’s a fraught position, and one that you’d only keep under duress. But what choice did he have?
Andy dutifully laundered the Warden’s dirty dealings. His complicity in them was undeniable, his hands unavoidably dirty…but Andy was smart enough to realize that, in prison, ethics are a secondary concern to his survival and eventual escape.
When Andy Dufresne escaped Shawshank prison, he cleaned out the Warden’s off-books retirement account and disappeared with the money. In the same sense, we must play a role in the dirty system that oppresses us long enough to extract our means of escape.
Use The Tools At Our Disposal
It’s not entirely clear when Andy made the decision to escape, but it was long before the opportunity presented itself. His method was tunneling, his means…an ironically small rock hammer, too small to even seem plausible as a tool for digging.
Yet at the end of the film, Red explains in simple terms how such a feat took place. He compared his friend Andy to the slow inevitability of geological forces…
“Geology is the study of pressure and time…that’s all it takes, pressure and time.”
Andy would chip, scrape, and dig his tunnel in the dark of night, for years -decades actually. And he covered his tracks by stuffing the crumbled dust he excavated into his pockets, to be spread around as he walked the yard the next day.
Only a tiny amount of progress could be achieved each day but sticking with this grueling, seemingly hopeless, project for many years finally opened a path for his escape.
When stuck in situations beyond our control, especially where our freedom is at stake, there simply isn’t any amount of hope that’s too small, too unlikely, to cling to for survival. All that matters is making small progress towards our eventual freedom.
Day by day, if we’re persistent and careful, seemingly insignificant progress compounds over time to become meaningful. And if all we have is a tiny rock hammer to chisel our way out of Shawshank prison…well, it might take a while, but we can make it work eventually.
Head Down, Stay Focused
To improve the prison library, Andy would write letters asking for funding every week, for years. When he finally gets a response, and it’s a paltry sum, Andy doubles down and vows to write two letters a week until he gets his funding.
Persistence is powerful protection against failure. Making a fuss doesn’t often have that affect though. I think the key is being politely persistent -knowing that we’re at the mercy of the system and its gatekeepers- and pushing for progress while remaining irreproachable.
Playing the hand he was dealt the best he was able, Andy’s days ran together in long succession. He spent his days cooking the books for the warden, his evenings writing to change his (and his fellow inmates’) fortunes, and filled his nights quietly chipping away at his escape plan.
Our escape will require no less effort or patience. For a variety of reasons, the timing must be perfect and the conditions right. In the meantime, we’ll spend our days working our jobs dutifully, our evenings contributing to plans and projects, and late nights scheming -or dreaming- our way to paradise.
Be Willing To Do Anything When It Counts
All of his planning, all his hundreds of hours of careful excavation, the years of enduring abuse…it all would have been for nothing if Andy had been unable to crawl his way through the sewer pipe at the climax of the story.
Tunneling through the wall of his cell had required painstaking care and patience -but the last leg of his journey was fueled by pure willpower and determination.
“Andy crawled to freedom through 500 yards of the worst stuff you can imagine.”
Freedom does not come without cost or sacrifice. The systems of control that keep us immobile, unable to live the lives we dream about, are built on and based in fear. Fear of our own failure. Fear of reprisal. Fear of our own agency, even, sometimes.
Red tells Andy, before the big escape, that he’s become an “institutionalized man”, unable to conceive of a life outside of the managed routine of the prison. The very idea of being on the “outside”, alone and with no controlling, authoritarian hand to guide him after decades of incarceration, was existentially frightening.
But Andy never succumbed to the fear. He tunneled his way out of prison with not much more to aid him than patience, determination, and his indomitable spirit.
Friends Have To Find Their Own Way To Paradise
Andy and Red were friends…the best of friends really. Their friendship spanned decades and endured many hardships, for better and worse. Their stories were intertwined. Despite the fact that Red had accepted his loss of freedom, Andy never lost hope for himself or his friend, and left a clue for Red to follow to find him one day.
As time for Andy’s escape neared, Red began to suspect something was up. Something had changed in his friend and he assumed the worst. The movie paints a dire picture for Andy, right up to the moment of the big reveal, teasing the viewer by implying that Andy might have finally succumbed to depression and committed suicide.
When you can’t see out of your cage any longer and you’ve had the last of your hope taken from you, this isn’t a far off possibility. Lack of freedom, lack of hope -these things can drive someone to darkness.
Red had to be shown the possibility of freedom to even consider it an option. Later, out on parole, Red nearly despaired again under the weight of his reintegration into society. Nearly being driven to darkness himself, he was inspired to finally take responsibility for his future by something Andy said to him just before his escape…
“It comes down to two choices: Get busy living or get busy dying.”
As I plan our own escape and consider the relationships that we have to leave behind as part of this transition –the people who don’t understand, who don’t see the importance of what we’re doing– it’s useful to sit with this scene. To consider how Andy saved his friend with this hopeful thought; planting a seed in his mind that grew into a dream, and finally a plan.
I can’t take everyone with us. Really, I can’t take anyone with us. Not at first. Eventually we hope to inspire others to follow us to paradise but I think it will have to be like Andy Dufresne…planting seeds, nourishing them with hope, and allowing people to find the way in their own time.
Friends, we will escape from this life and build a better one.
We’ve been planning and digging our way out and soon we will be ready to make a break for it. And when we do, this blog will chronicle our escape and the adventures that follow, in hopes that you find such inspiration in our story as I’ve found in Andy’s.