“Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” So said Red Redding to Andy Dufresne in that masterpiece, “The Shawshank Redemption.” If you have never seen the film, that is your immeasurable loss.
You should stop reading now, go find a copy or a download, and take the next three hours to soak it up. I promise that it won’t be time wasted. Morgan Freeman (as Red) and Tim Robbins (as Andy) have never been better, not even in the two decades since this movie’s release.
For the uninitiated, “Shawshank” is about life in prison. It is a story about guilt and innocence. Friendship and love. Vengeance and absolution. Struggle and injustice. It is a story about hope, and how hope can keep a man alive, even though Red had given up on hope long ago. Hope is a cruel joke, in his estimation, that convinced gullible people to long for something that was impossible to attain.
Old Red’s view of this thing called hope is largely consistence with the archaic use of the word. Ancient philosophers used hope as a synonym for dashed expectations. It was nothing but starry-eyed, false anticipation that coaxed humanity “to its undoing,” in the words of the Greek poets. Modern philosophy hasn’t changed this view, as Red could have easily been channeling Nietzsche who thought of hope as the malevolent instrument that simply prolonged human suffering.
Even for those of us who have less of a philosophical bent, or maybe we are just more rosy than Red or Nietzsche, we still struggle with hope. I mean, what is it, really? It’s an almost senseless word, the way it is tossed about. “I hope my team makes the playoffs this year…I hope they have chicken on the buffet today…I hope my oncology report is negative…I hope to graduate in the spring.” Surely hope doesn’t mean the same thing every time we use it.
But for all of hope’s ambiguity, it remains a worthy word, a necessary word, a thing of substance. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it was infinite; St. Paul said it is one of the three things that will last forever (the other two are faith and love); and Andy Defresne told Red it was “the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
In fact, that is hope’s exact definition. It is what never dies. More than human longing, more than personal aspiration, more than some head-in-the-cloud dream, it is the stuff of endurance. Look at the clinical studies and practical examples of those who have survived the worst atrocities; prisoners of war, individuals subjected to prolonged sexual abuse, or others who have experienced various traumas. The survivors always have some intangible power to bend, but not break, under the pressure.
These individuals – just regular, hardy people – endured, persevered, held on, were broken, mistreated, and suffered the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” while taking “arms against their sea of troubles.” But when the battle had ended and the waters had settled, they were found intact; hurt, but alive; battered, but not defeated. They had resiliency, which is the best synonym for hope that you can find.
Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who was eventually elected the first president of Czech people after the fall of the Soviet Union, defined hope as well as Andy Dufresne or anyone else could for that matter. He said, “Hope is not optimism. It is a state of mind. It is the certainty that life has meaning, regardless of how it turns out…I am not an optimist, because I’m no sure everything will end well. I just carry hope in my heart.”
Yes, “hope is a dangerous thing,” but not because it can make people crazy. It is a dangerous thing to the status quo; it gives people the tenacity to “keep on keeping on.” It gives people the power to change their world. And right now, in this world, that would be “the best of things.”