Breaking a Cycle: Familiar Captivity Versus Unfamiliar Freedom

Have you ever awakened to the reality that something you are doing is a recurring cycle of very unproductive thought or effort?

Perhaps it’s a job, a relationship, a habit, or worse, some addiction, behavior or belief that keeps you from being the person you want to be?

Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis once wrote that “a familiar captivity is frequently more desirable than an unfamiliar freedom.”

The Captivity

The obvious analogy to captivity is a prison. A few years ago, the great movie Shawshank Redemption was released. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it to you all. The film is about a man named Anthony Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) who is wrongly convicted of murder and sent to Shawshank prison to wait out 2 life sentences.

He quickly learns that life inside the prison is a world unto itself with its own set of codes and complexities that not only shape this world but also shape those who live in it long enough. Dufresne got to know the other prisoners and their own resignation to the waiting. Survival in the community was based on accepting the fate that nothing would change.

“Hope,” one veteran inmate told him when he first arrived, “Hope is a dangerous thing. It has no use on the inside.”

So those who lived on the inside just existed. They found their place in that world and expected nothing more. Their identities were based on their habits, how well they could manipulate the system and what you could offer to the other inmates. Parole became a joke. That is, until the point when the eldest inmate’s parole came up and he was being released after 50 years inside the prison.

When he found out, this gentle, elderly man grabbed his close friend and put a knife to his neck and threatened to kill him. It turns out that he was so frightened of living free that maybe if he killed someone they would let him stay inside. After so much time on the inside, how could he learn to survive as a free man? Inside he had his own identity, he was an important man, a respected man – outside he was nothing. How could he survive?

After the episode, Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman) described this as being “institutionalized.” Red explained, “I’m telling you, these walls are funny. First, you hate them, then you get used to them, enough time passes you get so you depend on them.”

The Big So-What

The Shawshank Principle shows us the familiarity of captivity versus an unfamiliar freedom. Once freedom was taken away from the convicted criminals, they reverted to a comfort inside the walls. The comfort became so profound, they could not imagine having freedom again.

Circumstances on our lives create for us familiar captivity. The routines we begin to follow day after day become a type of captivity. Your leadership style may be just a little too routine. To decide to change some part of the routine may seem like an awkward, strange idea.

Ask yourself whether you are allowing your current path to be your comfort zone. Or can you do something different; something more significant? As you think through that challenge, realize your first reaction may be to be afraid of the unknown.

Though it might be a beautiful freedom of expression and accomplishment, you might be inclined to stay frozen where you are.

Make a pledge to try something new. Do the thing you’ve been avoiding.