You are trapped. Stuck. Uncertain what to do. Mired in a depression that saps all motivation—even, perhaps, the will to live.
The forms it takes are many but the underlying problem is the same: you are caught in an ongoing situation you don’t want to be in. Perhaps it is merely unpleasant; perhaps it is outright horrible. Worse, it never seems to end, and you’re not sure if there’s even a way out.
But no matter what the situation, there is always a way out even if it’s not quite what you want it to be. And even if it’s physically impossible to get out of the situation itself (if the problem’s an incurable illness, for instance), there is still a way out of the misery which is the real problem at the heart of it, not the situation itself.
Figuring out the specifics of how to break free is your own task and responsibility because there’s no single method to fit every predicament. But no matter what the outer details, there’s one thing that everyone needs and that’s the inner inspiration to adopt an empowering frame of mind and to take action. Here are twelve movies (for the twelve months of the year) that, when viewed in this context, can you give you just that. Together, they form one full mythical cycle leading from entrapment to freedom.
This article is my own reminder to myself of what I need to keep doing to save myself from a trapped situation I am in. If I am closer to being free than I was last year it is because of these principles. I offer them in the hopes they may help you as well.
STAGE 1: ACCEPTING & COPING
The Matrix (1999)
If you carefully and honestly trace the causal roots of your trapped situation you can see that to some degree, you usually share at least a bit of responsibility in it. Yes, there were external factors that you couldn’t control but they happened in the course of you pursuing certain desires. And one reason why your situation is so painful and frustrating is because it prevents you from getting those desires.
Of the many ways in which the “Matrix” can be interpreted, one of them is that it represents the sum totality of our social and cultural conditioning which have exploited our natural animal needs (for food, clothes, sex, shelter and safety) and warped them into dark and excessive forms (greed, envy, fear et al.) which form the basis for much of the suffering in this world. We are conditioned to believe the things we want will make us happy but they rarely do in the long run, and the agents of the Matrix want you to keep buying into this manufactured illusion because it helps them get what they want (but they too are merely slaves to their own desires and fears).
When you are finally sick to death of the endless cycle of chasing, attaining, brief satisfaction and then back to more suffering, you might eventually come to see though your desires to the programming that lies behind them. To desire is to be human so it is not about renouncing all desires but asking yourself which are most worth pursuing. Because let us say that “freedom” is simply inner contentment and peace of mind no matter what situation you’re in. Then the less desires you have, the easier it will be to attain freedom.
• Ultimately, we are imprisoned by our own desires. More desires, more problems.
• Examine your desires, focus only on the one that truly count. “Free your mind” from the others.
The key to Cube is the Fool archetype who appears in it. In truth, in a literal situation like we see in the film a person like Kazan wouldn’t fare so well. But this is mythical allegory and in myth, the Fool embodies a certain type of wisdom.
Overthinking while trapped in any undesirable situation makes it even harder to endure and creates more problems and conflicts. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t think about practical ways to get yourself out; that, you have to do. But that’s all you should be doing. Don’t torture yourself with thoughts that do not serve the purpose of getting out, and in most cases 90% of the thoughts that enter your mind during the course of a day do not serve that purpose.
Unfortunately, one of the common characteristics of intelligent people in the modern world is that they overthink everything. My life mentor once said to me, “To survive hell, you must become simple like a fool.” On the surface, it was an exceedingly simple statement and yet I did not truly understand it back then. But I understand it now. He didn’t mean “fool” literally in the sense that I had to become stupid or to not use my intelligence and creativity. He was talking about taming the restless mind. And true to his counsel, my transition from an incessant over-thinker to a simpler person has been one of the most important factors behind my ability to endure a bad situation with patience and to keep focusing on practical solutions even when dark thoughts tempt me to wallow in misery.
As one character in Cube says, “Don’t even think about nuthin’ that’s not right in front of you. That is the real challenge. You got to save yourselves from yourselves.” Indeed.
• Being simpler doesn’t make you stupid. It better equips you to survive and break free.
• Steer your mind to focus on solutions, not obsess over how horrible the problems are.
In contrast to the enclosed space of Cube, here the hero is trapped in the infinite vacuum of despair, a despair brought on by her own over-analyzing mind which has imposed subjective value judgments on the difficult and painful occurrences in her life. And living in the world of cerebral thought as she does, she has forgotten how to appreciate the divine bliss of having one’s primal needs generously met—for air, food, health, safety, and survival itself.
Those who feel locked in despair who truly want to test the validity of that despair (for extreme problems sometimes warrant extreme remedies) could do so by letting themselves be put in a situation where their very survival is suddenly in question and see if raw terror and a will to live do not suddenly seize their entire being. If they don’t, then these people are truly in soul-deep despair. But if they do, then the body in its vastly greater wisdom wants to live but the mind is suffering too much to realize it.
In any bad situation, the situation itself isn’t the true prison. The mind is the only real prison. Thus we have philosophers, writers and mystics living in tiny cells, sometimes tortured, finding inner peace and writing beautiful works of literature to inspire others while those of us living free in a world that offers us everything at our fingertips are despairing. They are the free ones; we are the trapped ones.
• The suffering mind creates reasons for despair but the body by its very nature wants to live.
• Shift your attention from the mind to the body. If you find this hard, here’s a shortcut: hold your breath for as long as possible and then take a breath. Don’t drink water for a day and then drink. Observe the shift in perspective as you remember to appreciate what little you still have.
Cast Away (2000)
You may not be willing to leave your self-created Matrix but sometimes you don’t have a choice. Cast Away beautifully symbolizes what it feels like to have your life turned upside down and to have everything you’ve worked for taken from you. But sometimes, you need things to be forcibly taken away in order to realize that you’re still okay without them. In some cases, not only are you okay but you are actually better off. And if you’re willing to walk the mythical path traced in this film you can find the gift that’s hidden within the curse.
Chuck is a guy who has all the things people want: an authoritative position at a respected company and a loving relationship with a woman he’s set to marry. But it’s all violently stripped away. Now notice the title is not spelled “Castaway,” which is what he becomes. It’s Cast Away. It is a verb. Even though he has everything taken from him, Chuck at first clings to them emotionally. It’s only when he casts away his attachment to the things he once enjoyed that he is better able to attend to a much more urgent order of business: survival.
Once he has survival down, however, boredom, repetition and isolation become the next threats which is when Chuck taps into the power of imagination (symbolized by Wilson) to prevent a slow descent into madness, and to continue exercising his ability to love.
• Let go of those things you want but can’t have right now.
• When boredom and loneliness are the enemies, imagination is your friend and ally. Use it however you can to ease your own suffering.
127 Hours (2010)
Cast Away’s Chuck becomes free not when he casts away his love for the people in his life but when he lets go of his clinging to them and to the privileges he once had. Aaron, the real-life protagonist in 127 Hours, on the other hand, has the opposite problem: he is too independent of people to an egotistical and self-centered degree. He thinks he’s the lone hero, able to accomplish everything by himself with no need to be connected to others.
127 Hours is essentially the journey of a man who becomes trapped by his own self-centeredness. Freedom finally comes when he realizes that our love for other human beings and our connections with them are the only things that matter in life, and he makes the radical decision to sever that part of himself, both literally and figuratively, that led to his own entrapment.
The other price of Aaron’s freedom is learning to admit vulnerability and ask for help, and the moment in which he does this—again, both literally and figuratively—is the most poignant in the film.
Just remember: if a man can survive 5 days trapped in a canyon with scant food and water and finally cut off his own arm to be free, then whatever your situation is you can be free too.
• The love and connection you share with fellow human beings isn’t the cause of your entrapment. It’s the ticket to your freedom.
• Asking for help is not weakness. It is strength.
David is the only hero on this list (aside from Melvin in As Good as It Gets) whose problem isn’t that he’s physically trapped in some way. He’s spiritually trapped: estranged from his wife, stuck in a seemingly menial job, and generally just feeling unhappy and lost.
His turning point is when he discovers purpose. And although his purpose is portrayed in the film as a sort of innate destiny, I interpret this as simply representing any number of potential purposes that are always present in our lives. But if we sit around waiting for those purposes to reveal themselves, we’ll feel as lost as David. Instead, by conscious choice we must choose a purpose—invent it if need be. And the best kind of purposes are not tied to any one specific type of work but are rather flexible principles which you can conform to just about any work. In David’s case this is protecting people, something he could do in any number of possible occupations.
Just as David’s once meaningless job suddenly becomes drenched with meaning once he discover a purpose, you can adjoin your chosen purpose to your present job and activities without having to change them (unless you really want to). In fact, once you’ve found a purpose you might not even have to change anything about your situation at all. A server working at Burger King whose purpose is to transform a soulless environment into a warm and friendly one (and, yes, I’ve met such an inspiring person) can feel more fulfilled than a high-level exec who isn’t entirely sure why he’s doing what he’s doing other than that he’s expected to.
While choosing a compelling purpose is one’s own responsibility, Unbreakable also reminds us of the power of that time-honored mythic archetype: the Mentor. Willfully seek mentors out. Not all of them may be the ones who will unlock your potential but every little thing you learn from them will help.
• At this very moment there are any number of possible purposes to give your struggle meaning. Choose yours.
• Always keep an eye out for potential mentors. They can catalyze exponential bursts of growth.
As Good as It Gets (1997)
Again, like David from Unbreakable, the problem with Melvin in As Good as It Gets isn’t so much an external situation as the profound loneliness and disconnect he feels.
It’s natural enough to look outward for things to “fix” when your life isn’t what you want it to be. But equally important—no, more important—is the inside job. Like Melvin, one of the most pivotal moments in my life occurred about thirteen years ago when I was living alone in a tiny, freezing cold apartment in rural Japan with no friends and absolutely zero social interaction other than what I got from work. I was extremely depressed, bitter and unspeakably lonely down to the very depth of my being. Then one day I just realized, with mind-blowing clarity, that my friendless situation wasn’t due to the fact that I was too different or “weird” and that people couldn’t understand me. It was that I didn’t let them. I had set all the conditions for my extreme segregation from social interaction—I and no one else.
The changes I made since then led to richly rewarding friendships with many wonderful people. Well, at least until I became very sick… but that is a different story.
The point is that it’s you. It’s always you.
• Before seeking to fix things on the outside, fix the things on the inside. At least to a degree.
STAGE 2: PLANNING & ESCAPING
Old Boy (2003)
Once you have seen through your desires (The Matrix), let go of the things you can’t have (Cast Away), embraced simplicity as a coping mechanism (Cube), reconnected with the body’s primal will to live (Gravity), recognized love for other human beings as the true reasons for living (127 Hours), and seen how your own inner tendencies have helped create your trapped situation (As Good as it Gets), then you are now equipped to plan and execute your liberation. But endless patience is the key because change doesn’t come quickly. Even just the planning and preparing alone will take ages.
Old Boy isn’t an inspirational or feel-good film; it’s actually quite disturbing. But not all useful lessons come in feel-good forms. Dae Su, the antihero of Old Boy, spends fifteen years locked in a room that serves as a prison with absolutely no communication with the outside world other than through the news he gets on TV. Driven by the desire for revenge, a powerful motivating factor which I don’t believe is necessarily bad if you use it wisely, he works out and practices fighting endlessly which allows him to kick some serious ass once he gets out. Now, in actuality, being trapped in a room that long with no human contact would probably lead to insanity for most, but it’s an effective symbol of the power of patience and preparation and channeling negative feelings productively. Don’t just simmer in frustration or anger. Channel that energy into meaningful activity.
• Sad, disappointed, angry, or bitter? Good. Use it.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Like Old Boy’s Dae Su, Bruce Wayne channels his negative feelings into productive activity—in his case, the arduous task of recuperating from physical and emotional wounds so that he can make his leap to freedom.
As I’ve written at greater length in my post on TDKR, the deeper you’re trapped in a terrible situation, the harder it will be and the longer it will take to get out. You therefore can’t succeed with half-assed attempts, nor will you succeed if you try to jump for three different targets at the same time. Both mistakes will simply reinforce a pattern of failure and frustration. You must pour everything you have within you into the single task of getting onto that one ledge and one ledge only, and to not allow your precious energy to be wasted on anything else which could cost your jump to fail and send you plummeting once again into a pit of despair.
As in Gravity, you can also tap into a naturally powerful source of energy, fear—not the kind of vague, phantom fears that form the basis of everyday neurosis but real, primal fears of tangible pain, loss and even death if you do not free yourself (in his book Awaken the Giant Within, Anthony Robbins calls this using the pain-and-pleasure principle as leverage).
• You cannot successfully jump in different directions at once. Choose.
• Eliminate distractions and don’t waste energy on unimportant things. Put everything you’ve got left into your leap or you won’t make it.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
This film makes an excellent companion to The Dark Knight Rises because while Bruce Wayne’s leap towards freedom is symbolized in a single short scene, in reality your own leap towards freedom won’t happen in thirty seconds. It will take much, much, much longer and it will involve an entire process of steps versus a single jump.
We’ve seen the importance of patience and preparation in Old Boy, but even as you execute your plan there will be endless setbacks. You’ll make mistakes. There will be unforeseen obstacles. But setbacks are a type of feedback mechanism. They often hint at what you’re doing wrong and what you can do to be more efficient. So continue to tweak and improve your methods, observe the results and then repeat this process ad infinitum just as our hero William Cage does.
• Get comfortable with setbacks and repetition. There are going to be a lot of both.
• Never stop tweaking and improving until you’re free.
The Fall (2008)
It wouldn’t be fair for me to talk about the need for patience and persistence without sharing one of my personal secrets for maintaining both in the face of a hardship that never seems to end: my imagination. The human mind is a double-edged sword in that it is capable of creating boundless misery for itself, but when used positively via the exercise of creative imagination, it can also provide a respite from that misery.
Case in point: if I think of myself as just some average schmoe racked with illness without a job, money or any semblance of a social life, it is supremely depressing. But if I imagine myself as a great mythical hero on a par with the likes of Batman or Frodo being put to the ultimate test of my strength, well, then that’s more like it. Is there any objective truth to this mental construct or is it just self-invented fiction? Who cares? My goal is to get through my suffering and my imagination helps me do that. Never underestimate the power of subjective imagination for it is what has propelled humanity’s collective traditions of art, literature, religion, philosophy, and even science in some ways.
The other great insight of The Fall is that for as long as you make your own pain your focus, you will be miserable. But shift that focus to the pain of others, see how they too suffer. Perhaps they’re even suffering because of you or perhaps they will suffer in the future if you fail to get yourself together (like your kids, for example, if you have any). Suddenly, your pain transforms from a paralyzing poison to a galvanizing drive to take action not just for yourself but for the sake of others. In so doing, you come to see how helping others can also be a form of helping yourself.
• Incorrigible loser or magnificent hero? So long as you keep trying, then the difference is purely in your imagination.
• Shift your focus from your own suffering to that of others and witness your pain become a driving force for action.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
I can’t reveal it for those who haven’t seen it, obviously, but the big surprise moment in Shawshank Redemption again underlines the importance of patience and calm persistence over time even as it feels like the world is moving on without you (and trust me, I know what that feels like).
Andy’s innocence is also powerfully symbolic in that bad things often happen to good people, but to excessively mourn over that cosmic injustice simply prolongs your time served in hell. Just get to work and keep working, using all the ways that we’ve discussed to keep yourself on track.
Also, meaningful human connection, like Andy’s friendship with Red, is one of the best ways to cultivate the courage and resilience you’ll need for the long haul. So reach out to people and cherish human connections in any form that you can get them because not only will they help you get through this, but once you are free, celebrating your freedom with them will be a powerful emotional payoff.
• Just keep enduring and digging no matter how long it takes.
• Love and human connection will help get you through. Cherish them in any form you can get them.
1. See through your desires to the social conditioning that created them. Decide which ones are truly worth pursuing (The Matrix).
2. Cast away your attachment to the things you want but can’t have right now or that aren’t truly important (Cast Away, The Matrix).
3. Ignore the restless mind. Become simpler. Shift your center of awareness from the mind to the body which is content with basic needs (Gravity, 127 Hours, Cube).
4. Harvest negative feelings as a source of energy to plan, prepare and execute your liberation (Old Boy, The Dark Knight Rises).
5. Choose or invent a purpose that you can fulfill even right where you are (Unbreakable).
6. Change the inner qualities that need changing (As Good as It Gets, 127 Hours).
7. Shift the focus from your own suffering to the endless suffering of others. Let it awaken your compassion and motivation to free yourself so that you can help others (The Fall, The Dark Knight Rises).
8. Brace yourself for a very long struggle (Cast Away, Old Boy, Edge of Tomorrow, Shawshank Redemption)
9. Use imagination as a healthy, temporary escape when you feel like you just can’t take anymore. (Cast Away, The Fall)
10. Eliminate distractions. Channel everything you’ve got into the quest to overcome. (Gravity, The Dark Knight Returns, 127 Hours, Cast Away, Old Boy, Edge of Tomorrow)
11. Keep adjusting and improving along the way. Keep going no matter what, no matter how long it takes. (Edge of Tomorrow, Shawshank Redemption, 127 Hours)
12. Cultivate and cherish human relationships as a source of strength and meaning. Ask for help. (127 Hours, Shawshank Redemption, As Good as It Gets)