I've been watching a lot of movies lately on the theme of "The Hero's Journey" that every man must take in order to grow from being a boy into being a man. I've been particularly drawn to movies that talk about hope and masculine empowerment, such as The Shawshank Redemption which is currently rated number one on the IMDB list of the top 250 movies.
Obviously the reason why this particular movie is so highly rated is that it strikes a chord deep in the soul of everyone who watches it. I've seen it several times before, but this time it's struck some nerves with me that hadn't quite been hit before.
There is a great conversation in the movie on the topic of hope between Red (Morgan Freeman's character) and Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), and how hope can be a double-sided coin: on the one hand, hope can help us get through difficult times. On the other hand, hope can also give us a painful reminder of everything that we are missing out on so much.
Whether hope is a painful or positive thing ultimately depends on our attitude to it. I have certainly felt times in the past that hope was completely elusive. But as Dufresne remarks in another conversation: "You're either busy living, or you're busy dying".
Another quote from the movie that really resonates with me is when Dufresne remarks, in a moment of despair: "Bad luck I guess. It floats around. Gotta land on somebody. It was my turn, that's all. I was in the path of the tornado; just didn't expect that the storm would last as long as it has."
That pretty much sums up how I felt when I was ill for 8 years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
But the thing that really hit me most deeply after watching the movie this time around wasn't so much an event or character as a theme: friendship, and particularly the importance of friendship in enduring hard times.
On one level, it raises the question for me: "Where were my friends during my long dark night of the soul?"
You can expand the sphere of "friends" in this context to include family too.
Did I somehow fail to communicate to them just how much I was suffering? Did they just not care enough to call or visit? Did I simply forget the times that they did call and only remember the lonely days in bed when they did not? Did I miss out on more support because my rugged sense of self-reliance meant that I failed to ask for it? Where was my Red when I needed to get stuff, or my Dufresne when I needed some hope?
It's still a painful question that brings tears to my eyes even as I write this.
One of my clients asked me recently much the same question: "How can they be so indifferent to my suffering?" And my answer was something like: "It's not that they were indifferent, it's just that they were probably overwhelmed with it themselves. Unfortunately that's not particularly helpful for us though."
While other people's help and support can be invaluable for navigating difficult times in our lives, ultimately if we are to grow up we need to learn the skills of "self parenting": to offer emotional support to our vulnerable inner child when we are suffering.
The sense of lost friendship struck an even deeper chord with me too. At one point I found myself sobbing deeply as I felt the grief over my own struggles and losses around friendship. Although I've always been able to make friends in every environment and situation that I found myself, I've often felt a sense that real friendship was difficult or allusive to attain. The pain and sadness that I feel around this isn't attached to any particular person, place, event or time; it feels much broader and deeper than that. Perhaps it goes back to an event that first happened when I was so young that I can't remember any of the specific details of it.
The emotional centre of our brain develops much earlier than our rational memory does, so very early life events can leave a painful emotional charge with negative beliefs about ourselves very strongly attached, but not connected to any event we can remember. Maybe I had some traumatic experience in my very early interactions with other people who left me feeling that friendship is fraught with danger. That would make sense given that I am a highly sensitive person and I grew up in an emotionally avoidant family, and my resulting choice to keep my own feelings to myself would have made establishing friendships all the more difficult.
While I can only really speculate about where the pain surrounding friendship for me comes from, fortunately I do know what to do about it: let the sadness and grief flow when it gets triggered. That's how you heal past trauma in the present moment. So there were several points while watching the movie where I hit the pause button and just sobbed and let my whole body convulse as the grief flowed out of me.
Maybe that's why The Shawshank Redemption became such a big hit on video after failing at the cinemas: because in the privacy of your own home you can hit the pause button whenever you need to.