How Andy Won The Game Of Life

The Shawshank Redemption is the most gripping film I’ve ever seen.

It tells the story of an innocent man’s (Andy) hell in prison, his unusual friendship with an inmate and prison contraband smuggler serving a life sentence (Red), the former’s miraculous escape and the friends’ reunion as free men.

My favorite scene is a very short one. It features Andy in the prison yard, in his grey prison suit, entertaining himself, throwing something in the air and catching it above his shoulder. He turns his head over his right shoulder and his eyes meet the camera.

After this fleeting encounter, he wanders off. Peaceful. Hands in his pocket.

At the same time, we hear the voice of Red, describing their friendship:

“I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say… I liked Andy from the start.”

It’s tempting to spot a glimpse of hope in his brown eyes because, unbeknownst to everyone, Andy is digging a tunnel. It will take him 19 years to hollow out his path to freedom.

You want to think of Andy as the hero who knew he was getting out of there who, when he looks straight into the camera — an unusual thing in movies, surely it must mean something? — he is signaling to us that he is on top of it all. He’s the genius executing his plan.

But he isn’t.

When he looks at us, his eyes don’t have a particular expression. His gaze seems empty.

Andy isn’t some kind of superhero. He’s like you and me. He didn’t know. He was frightened. Andy’s soul is damaged beyond repair by more than a decade of harsh prison life. Free rapes and near-death assaults included. A sentence he is serving for a crime he didn’t commit.

He lost his wife. And then his life.

And yet he strolled, like a man in the park. Without a care or worry in the world.

How is that possible? And why don’t his eyes show us something?

What ‘acceptance’ looks like

His eyes don’t express anything positive, because he doesn’t feel positive.

Since I saw the movie over a decade ago, Andy always gave me so much strength in difficult times. He showed me that peace of mind is always there. Inside you. You just have to dig in your head to find out. Even if it takes 19 years. But it’s there. Whatever life throws at you.

This demonstrates you do not always have to love everything to be able to be the guy strolling in the park. When life’s mess, acknowledge that. You don’t lie to yourself. But it is as it is. And you accept that. There’s incredible liberationin this surrender.

And it doesn’t mean you have to make your eyes twinkle and say “Yes!!!” to every moment. No. Just be there. Here.

If Andy could do it in prison, certainly I could be like this as a free man? If even Andy managed to live “like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world”, then I could feel like that too. Always.

Why feelings are perennial goals

Over the years, life taught me that to achieve any mental state — including the one of not having a care or a worry in the world — your attention needs to be focused on something outside yourself. On other people, or on a passion of yours. Or on the hope of freedom, in Andy’s case.

As the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote about his existential crisis:

“Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” — Utilitarianism

Although it’s not too hard to understand how focusing on the feeling itself renders it elusive, it might not be clear why we need to, as Mill writes, have our minds fixed as something else not as a means, but as an ideal end.

I believe the operating mechanism at work is something like this. Our heart wants things. As ends in themselves. Not for the feeling of satisfaction.

Suppose I join a group of car owners who ferry people who cannot make their own way to the local hospital in their cars. I join because I want to help others. If someone asked me why I joined I could truly say “because I enjoy making myself useful.” I could equally well answer by explaining why it’s useful to have an organized group providing ferry services to the hospital with their cars. I am contributing to the car service because it is helpful. I think that is a reason to help, and I am right. It is also true, I say, that I am contributing because I enjoy being helpful.

So while satisfaction of my desire does enter into the explanation of why I do what I do, it is incorrect that I act in order to satisfy my desire.

We must act on these wishes. When you don’t make an effort for the things you care about, you’re telling yourself your own values don’t matter.

Ignore your dreams often enough, and your heart stops caring.

The feelings of emptiness that are so typical of depressions, burn-outs, and other crises, don’t arise because there is nothing to do, but because there is nothing you want to do. Nothing seems meaningful to you.

So yeah, while playing the game of life, we need to strike a delicate balance.Self-respect demands that we make a dedicated effort. Self-worth demands that we feel we are enough regardless of its outcome.

But we’ve forgotten it’s all a game.

Like Andy showed us, our happiness need not depend on whether we get that job, hit that target, achieve that goal.

Eyes off the prize

All this means we must play the game of life. If we don’t play — refuse to run the risk of losing — we’ll lose for sure.

Games suggest something that’s not serious, but of course games are serious. If you want to find someone who is ferociously intense and focused, watch someone playing a game.

But today, we’ve gone too far. Way too far. Because we attach our mental health to the outcome of the dices.

We are so performance-oriented that we’ve intimately linked our achievements to our worthiness. It’s considered normal by many people today that one’s self-image depends on external success.

And that is so wrong.

For one, having the basics — a good bed to sleep in, good relationships, good food — is most important, and those things don’t get much better when you achieve a lot or much worse when you achieve less.

As Tim Urban succinctly observed, for the vast majority of people reading his Wait But Why, ditto for Medium, it’s true that

we live in an “oh no I got laid off now I have to sleep at my parents’ house for two months with a feather pillow in ideal 68º temperature” world.

You’re not gonna starve to death, you’re not gonna die of exposure — what’s the worst that could go wrong? This is a time of “unlimited bowling”. So there is no reason to feel like we’ve gone all-in. It’s just not true.

But more importantly, we’re all running and running and running without getting closer to the destination we actually value.

We live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods.

“Most people make a strict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love, they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy.” — Alain De Botton

It’s not the material goods we want; it’s the rewards.

We’re trying to get to that place where we’re loved and accepted and get the Facebook likes and have the money and respect and status we yearn for.

The pursuit of social status is like a treadmill we can’t afford to hop off. A need that’s never satisfied. Paradoxically, while we seek to arrive at this summit where we feel we’re enough, a direct focus on impression-management only drives one away from an ‘I am enough’ state of mind.

When you stop running…

Think about Andy. How he managed to live “like a man strolling in the park.” In prison. Now think about the stress and anxiety, the sleepless nights, depressions, burn-outs, fights, we ‘free’ people inflict on ourselves.

See the strange discrepancy?

What if we see our goals as interesting challenges, instead of life-or-death pursuits?

What if, instead of running like our lives depend on it, we’d love ourselves like our life depends on it? What if we focused on realizing our values, instead of beating others?

What if we learned to express, not to impress? What if we strive to create for other people, instead of run faster than other people?

Or what if we allowed ourselves and others to craft our own vision of success, instead of fetishizing a few random metrics? What if we saw our lives as works of art, instead of products?

What if we accept that victory conditions of the game of life are not fixed, but depend on the person who is playing? What if we stop defining success as whatever The Other sees as high status?

What if we play life as a win-win game, and not a win-lose game?

What if we, like Andy, acted from a space of acceptance and peace, rather than from a competitive zero-sum attitude?

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