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So, November’s movie — the third instalment of my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series — was The Shawshank Redemption (1994). This is one of those movies that is on TV often enough that we’ve probably all seen and become familiar with at least some part(s) of it. I’m not sure, however, until this November, that I’ve ever actually seen the whole thing all the way through. In any case, as I have with the two previous films in this series, I chose this movie for what I believed to be a significant “life lesson” as expressed in a single scene that always stuck in my head: the “Ah-ha” moment when the Warden rips the Marilyn Munroe poster off Andy’s (played by Tim Robbins) cell wall to reveal a tunnel he has spent nearly 20 years patiently digging with a tiny rock hammer to facilitate his eventual escape — which he has just completed.
For me, the lesson behind the tunnel — a deliciously surprising plot twist — focuses on the incredible power of “incrementalism” in our lives. This is a concept I always try to impart to my son when he feels overwhelmed by the sheer scope of certain significant undertakings he might be faced with, whether it’s a school project — “Sure To Kill a Mockingbird is a long book, but you’ve got a month to read it, so that’s not more than eight pages a day which is no problem at all” — or playing a sport — “No, you’re not going to be Sidney Crosby the first instant you step out on the ice in your hockey gear, but you will get better if you’re committed to practicing.”
For me this message of incrementalism was especially timely because I was also participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, — which is why I’m not getting around to completing this post about November’s movie until December! — so I spent most of the month trying to convince myself that I could write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days and still be able to go to work and live a relatively normal life. What kept me going was not worrying about the 50,000 words that were required by the end of the month (which was far too daunting to even consider), but simply getting through the 1,667 words I needed to make sure I wrote every day. 1,667 words a day was “do-able” after all. And if I could string 30 days of “do-able” together, one after another, at the end of the month I’d have the draft of a novel in my hands. Which seemed, from the perspective of November 1st at least, somewhat improbable, if not completely impossible.
But NaNoWriMo turned out to be a success, and so was Shawshank. Not only did my son not hem and haw very much about having to watch it in the first place, as he did with the first two movies (thank you Morgan Freeman! — one of his favourite actors), he actually said to me afterwards that he thought it was one of the best movies he had ever seen. (Forgive him, he’s still young). But the real pay off for me was when I asked him what he felt to be the most important part of the story. “Uhmm, I think it was when when the Warden pulled the poster off the wall and discovered the tunnel,” he informed me. “Why was that?” I asked, trying to contain my excitement. “Well, because it showed that as hard as it was on Andy to be in prison he always had a plan he was working toward and he never stopped being able to manipulate people to make his plan work.”
I thought the “manipulation” comment offered an interesting — and maybe rather personal — perspective, but, nonetheless, I was nearly jumping up and down in jubilation that the message I had wanted him to take from the movie — “Plan your work and work your plan” — was exactly what he had come up with. Then, seeking to further leverage his new-found insight, I sought to broaden the scope a little in terms of how important incrementalism is as a tool in a person’s everyday life, including its application to things like compound interest, healthy eating and exercise, getting through university, saving for an expensive purchase, undertaking a large project at school or work, etc. The sheer, almost counter-intuitive power of incrementalism is probably not really something you can fully appreciate at 16 — given you haven’t yet had the experience of 40 or 50 years slipping by you in the wink of an eye — but he seemed to grasp it “in principle,” which, I expect, is all any parent can really hope for at this juncture.
And sure, we also discussed how the movie seemed to talk a lot about the idea “hope” in apparently hopeless situations, but what Andy ultimately shows us is that hope is an active, not a passive process. And an active process requires a plan. And the bigger the plan, the more imperative is our understanding of incrementalism. As Andy himself concludes, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living, or get busy dying.”