You Were Here

My wife and I don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to our movie preferences.

I’m sure that piece of information doesn’t come as a shock to anyone who knows me well, as I tend to favor sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, action, and thrillers and she is more of a period piece, romance, rom-com type of person. Even with that fact, there are still several movies that, if we are channel surfing on the TV and catch one, we instantly stop and get sucked right in…no matter where in the story it is.

Among this list of jointly loved cinematic offerings you will diverse items like The Godfather (1,2, and yes, even 3), The Queen (a tour-de-force for Helen Mirren, and a fascinating look into the private lives of British royalty during an exceptionally awkward time), Christmas Vacation (A classic around our house), The Truman Show (Jim Carrey really can act, and not just like a goofball) and the film that grabbed us both this last rainy, Sunday afternoon: The Shawshank Redemption.

I won’t bore you with a recap of the movie, I would assume most, if not all, have already seen it, but when my wife flipped the channel onto it, it was on one of the most powerful scenes within its entire runtime.

Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) are sitting alone against the wall of the main prison yard talking. It’s been almost 20 years since Andy was wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover, and the weight of all that time has changed him in dramatic ways. He tells his best friend, Red, about a little town in Mexico, called Zihuatanejo, right on the Pacific Ocean, where he would like to go when it he gets out of prison.

Red, seeing no use in torturing oneself, as a convict serving a life sentence, with the pipe dream of freedom, warns Andy to let it go and face reality. Andy’s response verbally sums up a major theme within the movie, when he says, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

It’s a message that gets repeated later in the movie after Red finds himself paroled and out in the real world after more than 40 years in prison, and after Andy has already escaped Shawshank.

The state sets up living arrangements for him at a halfway house, and a job bagging groceries at a local store. He notices that on the rafters of the main living area, an old ex-con named Brooks Hatlen had carved into the plaster the words “Brooks was here” right before he hung himself in that very room.

Brooks had spent most of his adult life in prison, and had become institutionalized. Upon his release, he found the world a radically changed and scary place, an alien landscape of progress that had moved on without him. The only mark he had made on the world was a wife and daughter that were long dead, and he felt out-of-place, alone and scared. He contemplated committing a crime just to get put back into prison, where life had made some sense to him, but instead opted to take his own life, with the only sign of his passing in and out of the world that scrawled message near the ceiling of a rundown boarding house. In the end, he had no hope that his remaining days would mean anything, that he had little left to contribute to the world…so he determined to not delay what he saw as inevitable.

Red finds himself in that exact same room, staring at the exact same walls, working the exact same grocery bagging job, thinking the exact same thoughts. His youth spent behind bars, his days ahead shorter than the days behind, Red must have been thinking about his own words earlier in the movie, where he talked about Brooks’ fear of the outside by saying, “They send you here for life, that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.

Red has to make a choice, standing there staring at Brooks Hatlen’s message in the plaster, the same simple choice that his friend Andy uttered, to get busy living, or get busy dying. Does a man his age still have a mark to make on the world in a way that is meaningful? What legacy does he have left, more than scratching out the fact that he was here, that he existed at all, on a dirty and decaying wall?

For those that might not have seen the movie, far be it from me to spoil the emotional ending of this modern day classic. The point is driven home…everyone has an innate, internal, intense desire to know that the time they have spent here on his earth leaves it’s mark somehow. That something, or someone, somewhere will indicate “I was here” long after you are gone.

Rene Descartes was a French philosopher in the 1600s, whose most enduring work is summed up in the Latin statement Cogito Ergo Sum, translated as, “I think, therefore I am”.

For Descartes, proof of existence was established by the fact that one could contemplate one’s own existence. This ability to THINK (cogito) demonstrated consciousness, it demonstrated reason, but most importantly to Descartes in particular, it demonstrated a foundation upon which to build beliefs, ethics, morality and the pursuit of achieving accomplishments of lasting and great value. Conscious thought and questioning…these were not just for the accumulation of more and more knowledge in his mind, or an end of the matter unto itself. Consider this quote from the man himself, as he expounds upon his linchpin meditation:

Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.

For Descartes, one certain and unshakeable point was cogito ergo sum, he confirmed that he existed, and if he existed then he could build upon that point a work, a mark, a “great thing”, that would reinforce the fact that HE WAS HERE. It was the very thing that Brooks Hatlen felt he could not establish in the time he had left on the other side of the prison walls…and the thing that Red was challenged with to answer.

How about you?

No one enjoys thinking about death, in fact many people actively avoid conversations about it when it comes up. It’s a difficult topic that can be rife with sorrow, or even regrets, and so we tend to keep our minds in the here and now until something happens that forces us to confront our own mortality.

I’m not writing this today to try and convince you that you should spend more time thinking about your, or anyone else’s, demise, and it’s not my intent to stir up difficult emotions because of the passing of someone close to you. What I would like, instead, is to pose four facts to you and ask you to give them some consideration.

1.) Death is a part of life and the human condition.

2.) What you are doing today can remain long after you are gone, firmly establishing the fact that you were here.

3.) That effect that you had while you were alive, the ripple your life causes throughout the years after you are gone, can be positive or negative in nature, so be acutely aware of what you are saying and doing.

4.) No matter what time has already passed, you are still here, right now, and that means you have time to keep making waves that will last. YOUR LIFE MATTERS.

The ability to confirm your existence through the contemplation of it, as Descartes focused on, is merely a baby step on the road of life…it’s what you DO with that knowledge that counts, and has a lasting impact for good or ill. Knowing that you ARE here, now, at this moment in time, then leads us up the staircase of higher and deeper thoughts, such as what will you do that confirms you WERE here after you’re gone? Some would call it your legacy…those things that you pass down to everyone that comes after you.

(I often think about a Children’s Pastor I knew when I lived in Kansas City, who had a sign in his office that read:

A hundred years from now it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank…but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child.”)

That sign, the work of Descartes, movies like The Shawshank Redemption, they all force me to pull myself out from under the lethargic blanket that daily repetition and routine can place on my shoulders all too easily. They jar me out of a “business as usual” mentality and allow me a chance to recognize that I’m not passing through life as if I were living in a frictionless, solitary vacuum where my passage leaves no trail, no wake, and comes into contact with no other objects. Instead, like a pinball I roll forward, backward and side to side every day, interacting with people and events, my impact causing each thing I touch to react, respond, and change with my passing.

A pinball strikes bumpers, targets and posts throughout its journey, some of them impact the ball in return, changing its trajectory, and some light up with energy and excitement. In that same way, what may seem like average days stretching out for long periods of time are actually opportunities for you and I to come into contact with people, places and situations that will sometimes impact us back…perhaps even change our life trajectory…and some you will change…lighting them up with inspiration and excitement through your words and deeds. Action and reaction, cause and effect, what you do and say has aftershocks that last for years upon years in the lives of the people and things you touch.

In fact, did you ever stop to consider that after you are gone, there will be monuments that you built declaring the fact that you were here?

Does that sound crazy to you?

When we think about that, our minds can instantly run to ancient statues across Egypt and Asia, pyramids and temples, the Taj Mahal and the Washington Monument…and most of us would shake our heads in disbelief. You might think of stars on the Hollywood walk of fame, or the hall of fame museums dotting the countryside that showcase legends from sports, music or movies…and you might laugh to yourself as you consider the odds that your name and likeness would ever occupy a space there.

Monuments, however, are created out of much more than just marble, bronze and granite, and they do more than just draw crowds of gawkers and tourists. A monument is also, by definition, “any enduring evidence or notable example of something, or an exemplary model of an abstract quality, especially when considered to be beyond question.”

The monuments you will leave behind can be found in the people you will have touched in some way that has changed their lives and the way they live it. The way they learn from the lessons you have taught them, or from watching the way you live your own life, which they in turn pass down to someone else. So it goes as a little piece of you keeps on propagating and moving through time.

There may be monuments built that are centered around the way you solved problems that no one else could figure out, or how you entered a situation and made things better through your calming presence, words or deeds. People that watched how you responded to adversity, saw how you approached a high hurdle or a difficult climb, grasped what you did to bring joy where there was suffering, or inspiration to individuals or groups that desperately needed encouragement.

Those people that you touched deeply, that you modeled a quality for in an exemplary fashion, will go on to accomplish things in their life that you will have a hand in…and THAT is your monument.

Monuments of stone, wood and metal will all breakdown under the weight of time and weather, they are destined to ultimately fall to eventual decay, but the monuments that you will leave can potentially last forever, replicating on in the lives of people that you will never even meet! How amazing is that?

How sobering is that?

When you do finally realize the influence you will have in your lifetime, be it on ten people or ten thousand, and that what you demonstrate everyday through your words and deeds can and will live on through those people to touch folks you will never encounter, you look at the way you are living and the things you are doing differently…or at least you should!

It should make you consider what monuments will say “I was here!” when you have long since departed…are they positive or negative? Like Descartes, we must contemplate what “great thing” we will set in motion, and will it propagate things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent and admirable? No matter how old you are or what has happened in your past, the time that you have remaining is so important, has inherent meaning, and will leave an inheritance of worth far greater than money.

Do you understand how important your life is? How valuable your decisions are?

You may not be able to change the past, but make no mistake, it matters that you ARE HERE NOW! What you do with that fact will be your monument, for good or ill.

Brooks Hatlen spent the majority of his life behind bars, and he felt like the only way he could leave this world demonstrating that he existed was only with a sign scratched in old plaster. The question that remained for Red, remains also for us…do we get busy living, or get busy dying? Do we take the time we have, seize it and treat it with the importance it deserves, and send a ripple of inspiration out across time…make our own mark in the universe that shows people the way it CAN be…the way it SHOULD be? Or do we make the mistake of minimizing our influence, the reach of our behaviors and attitude and power of our words?

To choose the latter is to declare that we have chosen to get busy dying long before our time is up, and is a waste of a life of vital significance. Don’t rob the world of the monument to good that only you can contribute, and cheat the people whose lives only you can touch of being changed for the better through your leadership.

Here’s the final thought.

Never underestimate what you still have left to do, or the lives that you will continue to touch, because that is your legacy, the monument constructed that tells everyone that YOU WERE HERE! However, don’t wait to start thinking about what you’ll leave behind until right before you’re about to make your exit, the world needs to know YOU ARE HERE RIGHT NOW!