Even though you may have seen a movie multiple times or listened to a song until the CD wore out, you can still pick up something new with each viewing or listening. I happened upon “The Shawshank Redemption” just this past week and even though it is one of my favorite movies and I have seen it probably 20 times or more, something struck me about it that I had never considered before. Something that reflects all of our deepest desires, something more important to us than money or fame…
If you don’t know the story of “TSR,” it’s a prison movie, plain and simple. And while Andy Dufresne and Red are the main characters, played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, it’s the story of Brooks Hatlen, played by James Whittemore, that struck me with this past viewing. Brooks was the old prisoner who ran the library and kept a pet bird in his coat, feeding him little scraps at the lunchroom table, who, after 42 years inside, was finally paroled. After trying to make it on the outside as a common man, he simply couldn’t handle it and took his own life. The prison had become his world and, without the structure and comfort of his home for 42 years, he was lost and afraid.
In the movie, prior to taking his own life, Brooks climbs up onto a table and uses his penknife to scratch the words “Brooks Was Here” into the cross-beam of the room in which he is living. In the book on which the film is based, “Different Seasons” by Stephen King, the only information about Brooks’ death is that he died in a home for indigent old folks – clearly not the more dramatic suicide portrayed in the film.
Nevertheless, it’s the words that Brooks scratched into the cross-beam before he died that connected with me on a level that I had never before realized. When you think about Brooks, you think of someone who had been in prison for 42 years and consequently, to the outside world, was invisible. Or, to put it another way—he had simply never existed. Inside the walls of the prison he may have some limited legacy, but on the outside, where the mass of society lives and breathes, he was like a wisp of air that’s gone before you know it has even blown your hair.
And I think that this is every person’s deepest fear, to be forgotten, and our greatest desire: to make a mark and be remembered. Without the scratchings on the cross-beam, Brooks would never be thought of again, his name never again uttered, his existence never again considered. But with 13 little letters, he has left a tiny fragment of himself. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you, but at least something that, when people go into that room, they would see his words and have the briefest of moments of thought about Brooks Hatlen. What they would think about is anyone’s guess—hopefully nothing as depressed as a convict who had been in jail for 42 years only to be paroled and kill himself because he missed prison life. But nonetheless, they would think about him.
A few weeks ago my Rabbi gave a sermon and he indicated that memories of our ancestry only goes back three generations, to our great-grandparents’ generation. Earlier than that and our ancestors are people we never met and of whom we know very little if anything. Which means that our accomplishments and experiences will be long forgotten by the time our great-grandchildren have children of their own. And aside from the money and fame, I think that deep down all we as human beings want is to make a mark so that we are remembered. We may no longer be tangible to our later generations, but our contributions can live forever.
Brooks Hatlen had no later generations—his genes died when he committed the crime for which he was imprisoned for 42 years. His legacy at the prison would be fleeting at best. So what else did he have? How else could he make his mark so that someone, anyone, would remember him?
He carved his name into a cross-beam; it was all he could do to prove he ever existed. If only 3 people ever see that carving, that is 3 more people who will ask the question of who was Brooks and what were the events in his life that led to his climbing up on a table and etching those 13 letters.
Brooks had no other choice. We are far luckier. We have the power and the capability of doing wondrous things with our lives and leaving an indelible mark on our world. We aren’t limited to scratching our names into a cross-beam. The thought that what I do today could be remembered forever? Yeah, that’s pretty exciting.
So I better get to it, don’t you think?
What about you?