How to Practice the Virtue of Hope: The ‘Shawshank’ Connection

The apostle Paul ends 1 Corinthians 13 with the words “And so these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” In the Christian tradition from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond, “these three” become the three theological virtues. For love, we get a list of how-to’s in the same chapter: love is not rude; it rejoices with the truth. In Hebrews 11, we get a list of heroes of faith. But what to say about hope? Compared to our common use of the term “hope” to mean a wish or desire (“I hope it doesn’t rain,” “She is hoping the new medication works”), it may be a stretch to think of hope as a virtue—that is, a settled habit of thinking, feeling and acting in certain ways. Aquinas describes virtues as character traits that are meant to be exercised. So while virtues are a gift from God, we still need to live them out. This essay consists of beginning thoughts about how to practice hope.

The film “Shawshank Redemption” (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1994) is ostensibly a story about hope. Stories are good at catching the subtle ways a virtue can shape a character’s comportment and cares over time throughout a variety of circumstances. If we take the film as a sign that points beyond itself, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) gives us a picture of how the goods we desire can be shaped by hope, and his friend Ellis Redding (“Red”; Morgan Freeman) gives us a picture of learning to rely on another who has become a friend. One of the unique contributions of the film is to show how friendship can be a practice of hope, a thought that echoes the theological perspective of the Christian tradition in which human beings are made for loving fellowship with God. In this life, however, we live as wayfarers anticipating that promised end. Practicing hope is virtuous for us.

Hope is a high-stakes business. It is a commitment that must hold in the darkest and hardest places, and it is a commitment that must temper all other commitments to good things in this world. Any prison setting, therefore, is a good test case for hope. What is left to live for when everything else is stripped away? “Shawshank Redemption” considers this question. As Aquinas describes hope, it is a longing for a good we desire that is not yet (fully) possessed but possibly could be. Our sense of what is possible depends on what is in our own power and on what is in the power of another who is willing to help us. In the case of theological hope, we must depend wholly on God’s power and mercy—help from another—to get what we long for. And the good we long for is a love relationship with God himself, so the end of hoping is a good that we share with another.

Both Aquinas and the film picture hope as an enduring task. Aquinas describes this virtue’s development as a process in which we move from “the love of desire” to “the love of friendship.”  We begin by desiring happiness or salvation as something that is our own good. Clearly our own power is insufficient to get it, so we rely on God’s help to get it. However, while relying on God habitually over time we get to know God better and we discover that he is not only powerful to save but also loving and faithful. As we get to know him better, we come to appreciate better that the fulfillment we long for consists in fellowship with him. As hope is perfected by love, God is desired not only for his necessary assistance but also as a friend loved for his own sake. “Friendship with God” turns out to be hope’s end and hope’s means to that end.

With practice, hope unfolds and is perfected by love.

Learning A Discipline

If hope is an enduring task and continuously unfolding activity, this raises two important questions for practice: First, how can we practice hoping in God?  And second, can we hope for other things (and if so, how)?

The theological virtue of hope reframes and reorganizes our desires for other good things. It shapes the way we grieve the death of those we love, loosens our grip on comforts and luxuries, softens disappointments with career aspirations that went to ruin, tempers our desire for worldly success, bolsters our commitment to faith-inspired projects that seem a stretch from the point of view of our current resources and leads us to positions of vulnerability and boldness that we would not risk if it were not for an eternal perspective on our life and vocation. Given hope’s orientation to God as the final end toward which all other goods are directed, we should expect hope to saturate our imagination and motivation in ways that shape daily practice.

When hope fixes our heart on God as the only good that can ultimately satisfy our longings, it frees us from excessively valuing or relying on any other created goods as false substitutes for our end. Hope enables a kind of detachment from things to which we might otherwise idolize or cling too tightly or build fantasies around. In “Spiritual Emotions” (Eerdmans, 2007) Robert C. Roberts says, “Not only does the hope of glory enable [the Christian] to resign all earthly prospects; it also enables her to take those prospects up again and appreciate them for what they are” (153).

Andy’s hope gives us a metaphorical but no less instructive account of how hope shapes our desires for other goods. In one scene, Andy finds a record of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” in a prison office and plays it over the prison’s public address system. He is punished with two months of solitary confinement. When he emerges, he tells the other dumbfounded inmates that it was the “easiest time he ever did” because he had the music in his heart. The beauty of the music helps him live in the dreariness of the prison, but it is also a good that he shares with his fellow prisoners. In “Spe Salvi” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007) Benedict XVI writes, “While [hope’s] community-oriented vision of the ‘blessed life’ is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world.” Andy also builds up the world inside Shawshank by starting a library, and his cell is covered with classical art. He makes prison life more than dreary drudgery for himself and for others. He is consistently drawn to goodness, beauty, friendship and truth that eludes his own final grasp—goods that enlarge, energize and enrich his current way of living. Even if his taste of them is only partial and imperfect in prison, for him they are signs and anticipations of a better, fuller human life, one he longs and lives for. Andy does not have hope in the full theological sense, but the structure of his desires is similar to the way hope orders all earthly and human goods toward a more ultimate end. Andy lives in a way that points (and points others) to a fuller human life beyond the walls of prison and holds on to a measure of that goodness even within its walls.

Hope In Reliance

If we only focused on Andy as a picture of hope, however, we would get too humanistic a portrait. Andy is a heroic and self-reliant figure; the escape scene shows a man working alone on his own power. We need to shift our focus to Andy’s friend, Red, to picture a lived answer to our first question: what hopeful reliance on a loved friend looks like. Red narrates the film, so the film presents itself also as a story of Red’s journey from despair to hope. Red receives hope as a gift from Andy, and it stretches both his imagination and his desire for a life beyond what he had previously dreamed possible for himself. While in prison, Andy befriends Red and shows him what a life beyond Shawshank looks like. He teaches Red the name of the town in Mexico where he will be waiting when Red is released. Red has to learn to let Andy’s expansive love of the good break into his closed and hardened heart. Red also has to rely on his friend Andy. He has to remember Andy and his promises after he is gone. He has to resist despair in a lonely hotel room and go in search of the letter his friend left for him. To be reunited with Andy, he has to believe the letter’s promises, use the cash to buy a bus ticket, and embark on a journey to the coast of an ocean he has never seen. His destination is not, however, this earthly paradise, however promising it might be. What he longs for is to be with Andy—to continue their friendship, already begun in prison, together in freedom.

Hope is the habit of longing to be with a friend we have learned to love, who has taught us to hope and to hope in him, who has given us everything we need for the journey, if we are willing to trust and willing to follow him.

Of course, the film can only serve as a metaphor for the hope that loves and relies on God. Benedict, in “Spe Salvi,” sums up both the promise and the limitations of the film’s picture of redemption thus:

[We are] redeemed by love. … When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of “redemption” which gives a new meaning to his life. But soon he will realize that the love bestowed upon him … remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death. The human being needs unconditional love. … If this absolute love [of God] exists, with its absolute certainty, then — only then — [are we] “redeemed,” whatever should happen to [us] in [our] particular circumstances.

Beauty, suffering, waiting

What practices of hope are signposted in the film?  First, we see the power of beauty, art and music to expand our vision of the good, to stretch our imaginations and to make our hearts yearn for something more. In “Reality, Grief, Hope,” Walter Bruggemann (Eerdmans, 2014) writes, “Hope is a tenacious act of imagination given in dream, oracle, narrative, and song” (125). Andy plays Mozart in prison; Paul and Silas sing in chains; African American spirituals lament and keen for future glory. Why sing instead of speaking one’s hope?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, in “Life Together” (Harper One, 1957), “our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, [and] the burden of our song goes far beyond all human words” (58). The film itself, as a piece of narrative and visual art, can inspire us to transcend our own world and “escape from the prison of our ‘I’,” and, like Andy, invest our lives in spiritual goods larger than the self—relationships and loves and projects, as Pope Benedict says, that teach us to reach further and to long for more.

Second, the film depicts the endurance of suffering as a practice of hope. Suffering keeps us painfully aware of our hunger for goodness and love that the world cannot deliver. The detachment and relinquishment it demands erodes all pretense that this world is our home and that the good we have now can satisfy. Like nothing else, it shatters our fantasies and idols and exposes the true foundation of our lives. Reflecting on the link between faith and hope in Hebrews 11:1 (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for”), Benedict XVI writes, when “this ‘substance,’ life’s normal source of security, has been taken away … [those who hope in God] have stood firm, because they had found a better ‘basis’ for their existence — a basis that abides, that no one can take away.” When we are tempted by despair, we need story and song to inspire and encourage us, but when we are tempted by presumption to make our paradise on earth, suffering reminds us that we stand only on God’s unfailing grace.

Third, hope requires waiting, or better yet, awaiting. Theological hope’s ground of possibility is not in ourselves but in God. Hope in God requires willing dependence and trust in his power. When we hope in ourselves, we are in control and working on our own power. When we hope in the Lord, it is not up to us how and when our deepest desires will be satisfied. Waiting implies ceding control and learning contentment with his gifts and his timing.

Yet there is a difference between merely letting time pass and living in hopeful expectation. The prison context makes this clear. Inmates who are merely doing time are not waiting for anyone or anything. Those who hopefully await God’s help expect good things and live in readiness to receive them from him. “Waiting for the Lord” is the spiritual work of keeping one’s heart open to the goodness longed for and not giving up on the one with the power to deliver it. Eleonore Stump, in “Wandering in Darkness” (Oxford, 2010), tells Abraham’s and Mary of Bethany’s stories as just this sort of experience. Reassuringly, even though Abraham and Mary falter in hope at crucial junctures, in the end they receive from God everything they have hoped for and more. While suffering teaches one to let go of false hopes, waiting is a crucible in which one learns that despairing resignation—giving up on one’s genuine good—is also an enemy of true hope.

What is most striking, however, is that “Shawshank Redemption” is a story of the way Red’s hope is cultivated and sustained through friendship—a compelling metaphor for theological hope. We have already seen the way that a relationship of friendship can be the object of hope. But encouragement to hope (and keep on hoping) also comes through friendship in a variety of ways. Friends are models of hope, as Andy was to Red, and our friendship with each other can enliven hope by allowing us to participate in and mirror the friendship of God on the journey. Although we often receive help in the form of general benevolence and solidarity, the personal nature of the assistance of friends is important for practicing hope, because hope involves desire for my ultimate end, even if this good is shared with others. Those who help me must therefore care about me and my reaching the end, and for this friendship seems ideally suited. Such help includes both physical assistance for the journey (the cash for the bus ticket, meals for the sick) and encouragement that keeps our spirits alive (Andy’s letter, a card expressing care).

Relying on friends and building communities of mutual dependence teaches us to live as the dependent creatures we are. In “Shawshank,” not only Andy’s assistance but also his love and friendship are essential for cultivating and sustaining Red’s hope. After Andy escapes, Red confesses, “I miss my friend.” When Red is released, the letter he finds is signed, “Your friend, Andy.” When they are reunited on the beach, Red drops his suitcase and Andy his tools, and the two friends embrace.

On a more explicitly theological note, petitionary prayer —asking for one’s needs to be met by God, in a posture of dependence — seems to be a paradigmatic and distinctive practice of hopeful reliance. This might best be seen by contrast with the vices opposed to hope. The despairing person does not pray, because he assumes that he is beyond the reach of God’s redeeming mercy. Like Red, who thinks of himself only as an “old crook,” the despairing person cannot see beyond his damning past to know himself as one whom God wants to redeem and befriend. The presumptuous person, by contrast, does not (or does not any longer) see her need for God’s assistance. Hope requires us to acknowledge our need for help. In hope, the thief on the cross prays this petition: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42-43).

Perhaps it is ironic that remembrance of the past can also be a practice of hope, because hope is a forward-looking virtue. Red’s narration recounts Andy’s life and escape, even after Andy is gone, and he holds in memory Andy’s promises and the name of the town in Mexico that Andy told him. Scripture is likewise full of practices of remembrance that catalyze our hope for the future: The psalmists recount God’s faithfulness to Israel as a way of bolstering their confidence that God will continue to be strong to save, and Christians’ Eucharistic memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is, perhaps, the ultimate practice of hope. The remembered past secures our identity as God’s beloved, rescued from sin and death, and strengthens our hold on his promises for the future. Reciting psalms and Jesus’ words before his death, “Do this in remembrance of me,” are narrative recountings that renew our hope, as Red’s narrative tells the story of a friendship that gave him reasons to live in hope.

The film can only gesture inchoately at a life animated by theological hope. But for Christians called to “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12), its story serves as a worthwhile prompt for us to ponder how to practice hope and, specifically, how hope might be encouraged within friendships, both human and divine.