I broke out of Shawshank Prison in a dramatic fashion that wound up with the warden committing suicide for his transgressions and me living out the sweet life with a bad ass boat and my best friend Red, in Zihuatenejo. Mexico. People have often fantasized what the sequel to Shawshank Redemption would be and the best I can come up with is entitled “Red and Andy; Girls Gone Wild, Zihuatenejo”. But that would just be a cheap way to make loads of cash that would betray the moral center of a beautiful story.
At the heart of Shawshank is the idea of hope. That despite the cards you have been dealt, whether you are innocent or guilty, whether you wound up in this prison by just or unjust means, that every one is equal within these walls and that everyone possesses the same potential of spirit. That all within these walls have lives to live, choices to make, love to give and love to receive. That beyond the transgressions and oppression of the incarcerated life there is always the possibility of liberation, of freedom. And that freedom doesn’t come from prison breaks or drugs, or idle fantasy, but from the transformative power of the mind, the transformative power of the written word. No one knows that more than you.
I’m in the business of entertainment. I have seen many movies and read a lot of scripts that put forth the idea that what makes a character develop into a new layer of cool is a sexy car chase, a kick ass fight scene, and scoring the hot chick. And believe me I know and accept the responsibility of how that errant moral representation of reality may have affected your lives. But I think it is relevant to this ceremony tonight and indicative of the necessity of Mercy College to point out that the most popular movie of our time has as its arbiter of cool the opening of a library built by inmates at Shawshank prison.
There is a beautiful heart in the United States. It strains against the noise of the reactionary voices that cheapen it. This beautiful heart is told to punish and to lock up those that threaten our way of life. This beautiful heart is not asked to look at the individual or the possibility of transformative change. This heart is told to hold resentment and to forget and give up on those that have fallen. But whenever this heart knows, whenever this heart sees, whenever this heart feels the specific, the individual, the human being holding on to hope, the possibility of redemption, this heart rises, this heart celebrates, this heart believes. I know this in my own heart. I know it from seeing the tremendous dedication of Bruce Macleod and Hudson Link to the idea of transformative change. I know it from the tireless and altruistic spirit of Dr. Kimberly Cline and the professors and educators that give their time and their lives to this program. I know it from witnessing the forward thinking philosophy of Commissioner Brian Fischer and Superintendent Dawson Brown and I know it from looking at you, the Mercy College graduates of 2009.
I also know that this beautiful heart exists in America at large because of my experience in the years after Shawshank Redemptions release. I can’t tell you how many people have approached me in the past 14 years with a deep and profound appreciation of how Shawshank has affected their lives, changed their lives. They sometimes get the name wrong, I’ve heard how deeply moved they are by Scrimshaw Reduction, how they just saw Shankshaw for the twentieth time, how their favorite movie of all time is The Shrimpshack’s Retraction. But their sentiment is clear. There is something profoundly important about this movie to many people’s lives. I have been humbled by the response to the film and honored to hear people’s reactions. At first I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about the film that had touched this collective heart. Was it that this film told the story of a real friendship, a love between two men that didn’t rely on fast cars or skirt chasing? Was it about the idea that hope could overcome the oppressions of life and set people free? Or was it that the film gave life to all those lessons in our various religions about forgiveness and compassion and transcendent redemption and provided the possibility to us that these elusive concepts can be truly felt and practiced in our everyday lives? I don’t know. I would like to believe that our better selves are desperate for stories that embrace the true nature of forgiveness and understand that Christ at Calvary spoke his last words of compassion on earth to two convicted felons. I do believe that there are countless hearts throughout the world that are open to love and forgiveness and that when fairness and justice may fail us that we can always count on the miracle of the human heart to deliver us.
I had the good fortune and privilege in 1995 to meet a woman, a Catholic nun that made me not only forgive all the Catholic nuns that had rapped my knuckles and made my life miserable in grade school, but also opened my eyes to the deeper mission of what it is to be a person that has dedicated their life to the life and lessons of Jesus. Sister Helen Prejean had written a book called Dead Man Walking that told of her experience with death row inmates in Louisiana. In the book she talks honestly about the dilemma she encountered as she took on the role of spiritual advisor to prisoners about to die at the hands of the state. She talks about the outrage she faced from the families of the victims of the men she was counseling and the guilt she felt from this. She talks about her struggle to come to terms with the crime that the inmates she was advising had committed. There is a passage in the book that took hold of me, that made me understand why this story needed to be told and it was this: “Every man is worth more than his worst day.” Every guilty man in a prison today is in there for his weakest moment, his gravest mistake, his lesser self, a moment, a failing, a misguided path he chose to follow. In writing this, Sister Helen wasn’t making excuses for the sin or trying to advocate for an inmates release. She was simply reminding us that there are human failings, however brief, that result in lasting consequences, and that these moments of failings should not be the true and entire representation of the man. That despite his crime there is, underneath societies hatred of his transgressions, a possibility for that man to rise above his past and become whole again. That every man is capable of rising up to his better self and defining himself not by his moment of weakness but by his dedication to his strength and his commitment to change. This is something that I don’t need to tell you, you that are graduating today. You know this in every cell of your body. You know this in your soul.
You have risen beyond the shackles of limitations and judgment. You have looked fear and intimidation and self-doubt in the eye and forced it to its knees as you have taken your books in hand to educate yourself and rise above what was expected of you. I am humbled and honored to be in your presence today on this momentous and auspicious occasion that celebrates your tremendous achievement. You are an inspiration to us all. This isn’t a graduation ceremony of kids that have been entitled with their achievement by the ordinary and obligatory idea that higher education is a birthright of the wealthy. This is an achievement that carries with it the true commitment you have showed, regardless of the obstacles and challenges placed before you. This is a college education that is truly earned without the frills of frat rushes, homecoming football games or keg parties, an education that is wholly an education and not an idle four year distraction, an education and an enlightenment that will inform your future years with a beautiful light, a beacon that will illuminate a redemptive road. That piece of paper you will hold in your hand is pure light, an acknowledgement of how truly unique and special you are. That piece of paper represents your unbridled power, your limitless potential. You have the power now to change lives by your example, to protect those that might fall and to lift those up that have fallen. You have the power to inspire others, to guide others, to teach, to nurture, to love with compassion. That piece of paper holds a lot of potential in it. Believe in it, live it, celebrate its importance and celebrate your significance. You have become the catcher in the rye, a leader of men, a guardian angel, a protector, a provider and a shining light of this beautiful brotherhood that has flourished within these walls. May your future hold no boundaries to your spirit. May the future unfold with challenges that you are happy to embrace, and with the grace and love that you have so proudly earned. Congratulations on your inspiring achievement and thanks for giving me the honor to be with you today.