On Hope…Just a few words while I have them

tumblr_m62ggwMtaR1rx2k32o1_1280I love The Shawshank Redemption.  It just might be my all-time favorite film.  At the beginning of the story, Andy Dufresne is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover–a crime he didn’t commit–and is sent to Shawshank Prison in Maine to live out the rest of his days.  I’m sure you’ve seen the movie so you know exactly who and what I’m talking about.  (Side note: If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, shame on you! Do so immediately! Just keep your TV tuned to TNT.  They show it at least once a week, it seems!)  It is truly a story about hope when all hope seems completely lost.

Andy is the character that keeps hope alive throughout the story, and infuses the lives of his imprisoned friends with that same, contagious hope.  After an initial battle with the understandable fear he has about entering that terrible prison in the first place and a truly horrifying start to his incarceration, Andy is able to find some friends among the inmates and even the guards.  He figures out a way in which he can become useful.  He creates for himself a possibility.

Hope seems to be easy to live into when you have something to hope for…or, is it something to hope in?  Andy lives in the hope that justice will one day prevail, that the truth will one day come to light and it will be proved that he is, indeed, innocent.  If he can just work hard, keep his head down and an ear up, he just might find himself in a position to once again bask in the freedom that he and all of his fellow inmates know is just beyond the walls– walls that seem to close in more and more as the years go by.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if the story could’ve played out the same way if Andy had actually been guilty.  His innocence seems to be the linchpin.  Everyone else is guilty.  Their fates are sealed.  They know they deserve the punishment they’ve gotten.  They might get paroled at some point, but that isn’t very likely.  Their hope has all but disappeared with their guilt.  Andy, however, has something on which he can hang his hope–the justice that arrives on the back of truth.

But what is truth, really?  These days, it seems as though one man’s truth is another man’s blasphemy.  Some days it feels to me like something to hang my hope upon is nothing more than yesterday’s pipe dream.  I used to be so sure, so certain of where my hope was hung.  But, as I entered my thirties and felt my faith changing, I slowly began to realize that my trust in that which is greater than myself was shifting as a result of an extremely shaky and unfocused hope.

In my youth, my hope was firmly fixed upon a life after this one, and, not insignificantly, was tied to an “I’ve got it all worked out” theology.  That made things quite easy…until the questions without any answers started popping up.  The religion of my teenage upbringing seemed to have very little room for uncertainty.  If you studied and prayed hard enough, you’d know what to do.  All of the difficult questions had answers, except the ones that didn’t.  In those cases, we were to “leave that up to God.”

Without answers, my hope began to fade.  Without a feeling of certainty, I began to wander, lost in the desert of the unexplainable.  Then I discovered what it is that lies just on the outskirts of unanswerable questions– Mystery.  A place where my hope slowly started to flower.

For a brief moment in time, I thought about giving up on my faith.  I thought I could, as some of my friends had done, leave God behind in favor of a Secular Humanist approach.  (In a remarkable bit of irony, I’ve witnessed the lives of several friends actually transformed by God for miraculous purposes the moment they gave God up.  Go figure.)  As for me, I could never pull that off.  There has always been something in the ceremony of my religious practice that has kept me intrigued and engaged in a pursuit of a relationship with the Sacred.  And it was a refocusing on that pursuit that re-energized my hope and strengthened my faith.  It was a reinvestment in a greater hope that enabled me to trust in mystery.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend of mine, Dr. Donald Brash, explained his thoughts on hope to me.  A statement he made baffled me at first, but as I let it settle, the meaning became more clear.  He said:

“Hope is greater than faith because it liberates faith to new possibilities.”

Possibilities.  I like them.  Without possibilities, we’re doomed to live forever behind the walls of our own personal prisons.  The prisons we create for ourselves every time we’re confronted by our own faults and shortcomings.

Hope is real.  Hope is powerful. Hope is, as Andy Dufresne says to Red, “a good thing, maybe the best of things.  And no good thing ever dies.”

 

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Follow Scott on Twitter:  @scotylang

On what you can expect when you expect something

ec22c64c1cc09e0a_3d-audience.previewA couple of months ago, about a week before Christmas, a thought occurred to me.  As I am wont to do nowadays, I condensed it to less than 141 characters (including spaces!) and tweeted it.  Here’s what I sent out to the world:

If a gift is given with an expectation of the receiver, then there is no gift, simply and exchange of a thing.

I didn’t think much about it.  Not too much comes from any of my activity on Twitter, and that’s fine with me.

But, something pretty cool happened that day.  Somehow, Pam Grier (yes, you read that right– Foxy Brown!!) came upon my tweet and retweeted it.  What that means is that she sent my little thought out to everyone who follows her.  With my name attached to it, Ms. Grier sent my tweet to over 500,000 people.

Evidently, it registered with many of those who saw it, because a few hundred of them retweeted it themselves.  I’m not sure exactly how many people have seen the tweet to this day, but I was blown away by the power of our modern-day methods of communication.

People talk listen on tin can phone communication

When I think about all of that, what occurs to me is that we really have no idea how significant each one of us truly is.  What we say matters.  What we will do on this day reverberates throughout the universe in the same way waves are created by the butterfly’s wings.

Now, that might only be a figurative statement and it might also be literal, too; I’m no scientist.  But, what I do know for sure is this: whenever we do or say a thing, after we’ve done or said it, whoever receives that piece of communication makes it mean something to them.  Sometimes that meaning is life-changing.  You never know.  What happens from there is so often out of our hands.  Even so, the next move is ours, and that move begins with us releasing our intentions without any expectations of the receiver.

Let me explain what I mean in this way.

I recently closed a production of the play, The Diary Of Anne Frank at The Media Theater in Pennsylvania.  During the run, we performed several student matinees for high school students.  Many of the students had never seen a live theater production before, and this particular play is not the easiest piece to see as your first.

Throughout the performance, they reacted as most audiences prior to them had reacted.  But, every so often some of the kids reacted to certain characters and moments in scenes in ways that most adults might consider inappropriate–laughing when you might expect a more serious attitude, murmuring to one another when you might expect silence, even occasionally talking back to a character (a character, mind you, not an actor).

Some involved in the production were concerned with the reactions of some of these students in attendance, but the more I thought about it, the more I was thrilled.  You see, these kids were engaged.  They were participating in the communication.  As far as I noticed, none of them were playing with their cell phones or whispering about how they might end up missing lunch.  They were fully engaged with the story and emotionally invested in what was being offered to them.  How could we really ask for more than that?

To have someone respond to your communication in the exact manner you expect them to limits the possibilities of how you can impact the lives of another, and how they, in turn, might surprise your own life with what they can bring to it.

Recently I decided that I’m a huge fan of mystery.  I believe that faith and mystery are such close bedfellows that any attempt to remove mystery from my life has a tremendously negative effect on my faith; not just in God, but in my fellow humans, as well.

I have found that when I concentrate on giving my communication away as a truly well-intended gift and leave what comes next to the mysterious unknowing that is another’s response, my life is richer, fuller and far more satisfying.

Now, that’s not to say that miscommunication doesn’t ever happen.  On the contrary, it happens often.  But, if I take responsibility for all of my communication, both how it is released (intention) and what meaning is made from it (someone’s response), I am, myself, engaged with the world in a way that makes for a heck of a thrill ride in this life.

I pray that my intentions bless your life.  I pray that you receive my intentions in that way.  But, no matter what, I choose to participate in the great mystery that envelops all that we do and say to each other.

I wish you peace.

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

 

How “Inside Llewyn Davis” got way down inside me.

One of the functions of great art is to, as Hamlet puts it to the acting troupe about to play his scene for the King and Queen of Denmark, “hold a mirror up to nature.”

Any great work of art, whether it be a painting, a play, a piece of literature, or a film, gives us something new every time we encounter it.  We go back to great art, time and again, because of what we see when we look into that mirror.  What each of us sees can be so different because of where we find ourselves on our life’s journey.  But, that’s what makes great art great– we all see different things.

As a result, conversations should ensue; opinions should be shared.  The more we talk and wrestle with what our lives are about, the more we learn about ourselves and each other; the more we learn how to live together and love each other better.

Sometimes, a great piece of art can speak to us as a group, as a society.  Other times, a great piece of art can speak to us in such a profoundly personal way it’s as though it were our own personal mirror.  For me, watching  Inside Llewyn Davis was like sitting down at a vanity.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by the remarkable Coen brothers, follows Llewyn Davis, a fictional folk singer, for a week of his life in 1960.  Based in part on the memoir, The Mayor Of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk, the film explores several questions that can ring true for everyone, but most especially for those of us who make our living in the arts:

How do we sometimes sabotage ourselves?

How much does being in the right place at the right time play into our success?

What’s the difference between talent and genius?

Would we just “exist” if we gave up our passionate pursuits?

Do cats really know where they are on the subway?

Llewyn doesn’t make things easy for himself.  He’s abrasive, a bit too impulsive at times, and not especially prone to making good decisions. But it’s his music that redeems him.  At the end of the day, making music is what he does better than anything in the world; it’s what he was made to do.  I related to that.

I related to his desire to make ends meet and the lengths he goes to in order to further his career.  More than that, I related to what Llewyn becomes while in the midst of performing, transcending the moment with his full concentration firmly locked on participating in something beyond himself.  Because of that, I rooted for him.  I wanted him to keep plugging away and continue to hang in there, even though I wanted to shake him by the lapels of his seasonally inappropriate jacket and say, Dude!  You could be a little nicer, man!  Especially to the people who love you and want the best for you! You dig?

But, I also related to his frustration of feeling like he’s stuck in a vortex of bad timing and thinking that those around him might never truly get what he’s trying to communicate through his work.  By employing a very effective story-telling device, the Coens show us, the audience, a week in Davis’s life in a way that makes us question whether or not he’ll ever make it out of that vortex and whether or not he could do anything about it even if he wanted to.

As an artist, the concern that others will understand you as a person is almost never as important as the desire for your work to be understood.  At the same time, it can be a very difficult blow to the confidence when the former does not occur.  Llewyn spends some time with a married couple on the Upper West Side of New York City, both of whom are college professors.   A few different times they introduce him to friends of theirs as their “folk singer friend.”  I’ve been introduced as “our actor friend” by friends of mine a time or two, myself.  There’s nothing ill intended, I know, but I related to Llewyn’s uncomfortable feelings in those scenes.

“This is what I do for a living!” he tells the hosts and their guests when they press him to play for them around the table after dinner.  He wants it to be understood that what he does is important in some way.  He wants his work to matter.  I got that.

As the film, and thus, the single week of Davis’s life comes to an end, the audience is left to speculate on how things will proceed for Llewyn.  Will his fortunes ever turn around?

When the credits began to roll, I thought about all of the ways in which the character of Llewyn Davis and I are similar.  But, as I sat in the car after the film was over, I contemplated all of the ways in which I wanted us to be different, and how much I hoped we were different.

I felt such I strong desire to sit him down and have a talk with him; to convince him that things could change if only he would look outside of himself and care more about others; to try to convince him that his gifts were given to him so that he could, in some small way, contribute to making the world a better place; to try to convince him that he already had everything he ever wanted and all he needed to do was learn how to give it away.

Then I realized, once again, how great art can be.  I had been looking in a mirror the whole time.

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Follow Scott on Twitter– @scotylang