My friend Helena asked me what a world without beauty would look like. At first words like gray and bland came to mind. Then I realized that I can’t imagine it because I believe the desire to create is so strong that someone, maybe lots of someones, will find a way to bring beauty into the world.
One of my favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption. Part of the reason I have watched this movie many times is a scene that exemplifies the gift of beauty in an otherwise beauty-less world.
Andy Dufresne is a banker wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Two years into two consecutive life sentences, he gets moved from the prison laundry to the library so that he can do taxes for the guards and offer them financial advice. He decides to take advantage of his new situation and improve the library. When the warden turns down his request for funds, he writes the State Senate one letter a week. After six years, several boxes of used books and records along with a check for $200, all addressed to Dufresne, get delivered to the warden’s office.
Instead of hauling the boxes off to the library as he was instructed to do, Dufresne thumbs through a box of albums, pulls one out and plays it on the warden’s record player. He quickly locks the doors to the office, turns on the loudspeaker system and then leans back in the desk chair, puts his feet up and closes his eyes as he listens. I’m not quite sure how to describe the look on his face. A profound joy with a touch of defiance. A deep pleasure.
Throughout the prison, men stop what they are doing and look towards the music. You hear the voice of Dufresne’s fellow inmate and friend, Red, who narrates sections of the film, say:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and further than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away and for the briefest of moments every last man at Shawshank [prison] felt free.
The angry warden pounds on the office door and Dufresne reaches to lift the needle off the record, but then leaves it playing and turns up the volume. A guard breaks the glass window in the door and Dufresne gets sent to the hole for two weeks.
When Dufresne is released from solitary confinement and joins his friends at the lunch table, one of them asks if it was worth it. Dufresne replies that this was the easiest time he ever spent in the hole because he had Mozart to keep him company. The aria was in his head and in his heart. That’s the beauty of music. They can’t take that from you. He looks around the table and asks, Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?
Red says that he played a mean harmonica when he was younger. However, he lost interest in it because he felt that it didn’t make much sense in prison.
Here’s where it makes the most sense, counters Dufresne. You need it so you don’t forget [that] there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. There’s something inside that they can’t get to, they can’t touch. That’s yours. For Dufresne, that something is hope.
This scene moves me every time I watch the movie because it demonstrates the power of beauty to stop you in your tracks. Beauty is not an everyday occurrence at Shawshank prison. Quite the opposite. So when an aria unexpectedly comes through the loudspeakers, the inmates and guards stop and take notice. For two and a half minutes they are speechless and motionless and I believe they are all moved in some way.
Dufresne must know that he will pay a price when he decides to play the aria over the loudspeaker system. He does it because he believes that music, that beauty makes more sense in prison than outside those walls. Although beauty always has the power to give you hope, it’s more powerful when your surroundings don’t inspire hope.
I cannot compare my situation with that of a prison inmate, but I do know that when I’ve had a rough day, sitting down at one of my looms and weaving restores my soul. I weave because something resonates deep inside me when I work at the loom. Immersed in the repetitive rhythms I experience forgiveness and my own goodness. Whatever was bothering me dissipates as the beautiful cloth grows.
My friend Sherri, who has a stressful job, has told me that finding something beautiful in nature every day helps her get through the day. It gives her something to be grateful for, which in turns makes her feel alive. The beauty of nature is always there, a willing medicine for stress. My friend knows that and chooses it day after day.
When it hurts, you can choose to view beauty as a senseless luxury. You can also choose to welcome it in, however briefly, and be moved by its power.
My invitation to you: Pay attention today, this week, this month. If you are hurting in some way, can you turn to beauty in some form? I’d love to hear what difference it makes.