Monthly Archives: December 2017

Lessons from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I love the new Star Wars movies, but one question had been frustrating the heck out of me. If the Rebellion defeated the Empire in The Return of the Jedi, then what happened to turn them into the Resistance against the First Order? Why didn’t the victory stay victorious?

If you’re not a Star Wars fan and don’t know what I’m talking about (which seems impossible, but the galaxy is a vast and mysterious thing), the movies are a classical fiction construct, which is to say they are a display of the strange and the familiar. Very old ideas about right and wrong are presented through the prism of courageous androids, crystal critters and a mystical energy that connects all action in the universe. Yes, Chewbacca is a 200-year-old, 8-foot-tall, spaceship engineer/pilot that can’t speak and yet communicates perfectly, and he’s also the same thing as a useful dog. Stepping into the Star Wars stories is like eating a new seafood dish from your favorite chef. You have no idea what it’s going to taste like, but you’re certain that it will be close to what you love.

I watched The Last Jedi yesterday, and while I won’t spoil anything, I will say that it is fantastic. Some people dinged The Force Awakens for simply repackaging the exact same story beats George Lucas’s first film in the series, A New Hope.  To them, I say, “I know.” These movies are not saying anything new, and that’s the point. Maybe there is only one story, and Star Wars just happens to be our favorite version of it.

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John Steinbeck, the author of many great novels, wrote this in East of Eden: “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one…Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil…There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

It’s amazing how we as humans can complicate issues. The purpose of making decisions is to solve problems, but we like making problems more than we like solving them. Today, my wife will ask me what I want to do for lunch. She’s asking me to solve the problem of being hungry, and I will consider money, value, geographic distance, Yelp ratings, the NFL schedule and my personal opinions about her personal opinions. Then I will shrug and say, “What do you feel like?” A sensible approach to our problem of needing food to live would be to pick a perfectly healthy meal with the proper amount of calories considered for our mass and daily activity level, and eat that every day for the rest of our lives. No human would go for that, but why not? Because the problem isn’t that we’re hungry. The problem is that we’re human, and we’ll get hungry again.

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In The Last Jedi, Rey and Kylo Ren represent the next generation of the light and dark sides of the force. Luke Skywalker trains them both at different times, and he teaches that the force is the connective essence between all things. He says, I’m paraphrasing, “To think that you own the force is vanity.” This is the essential difference between the dark side and the Jedi. The Sith Lords of the dark side use the force for selfish gain. The Jedi use the force to help others. But there’s always balance. Kylo Ren, Sith Lord, comes from the legendary bloodline of Skywalker and Solo and wields the dark side. Because he exists, the heroin Rey must come from nowhere to wield an equal power for light. Just like Yoda and the Emperor, Darth Maul and Obi One, Darth Vader and Luke, there is Kylo and Rey. The Star Wars rage forever.

The cynic says it’s a rehashed story. It’s a point Yoda would love. Right they are, and wrong they are. It’s a retold story, but it will never be tired. It was over two thousand years ago when Jesus of Nazareth told us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. told us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In 2017, Star Wars tells us, “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.” Star Wars story is retold because it’s a story that every generation has to tell. Because there will always be bad men, and because telling a story isn’t just about exposing evil men, it’s about providing hope. That’s why we have both news and art, because the problem is we’re human. There will always be bad things, and because they exist, a good thing must wield an equal power. Star Wars is here, with it’s fun and entertainment, to remind us that we can have hope in the world.

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A few weeks ago, I read a book called Here I Am by Jonathan Safran For. It was excellent. In it, a character named Max Bloch watches his parents’ marriage crumble to a divorce. Max is Jewish. He’s also just a kid. It’s not until years later, long after his parents divorce, that he gives a speech at the “boy becomes a man” ceremony that is Bar Mitzvah, that he processes the meaning of it. He retells Genesis 32 in which Jacob wrestles an angel in demand of a blessing. Jacob wins, and God promises to make Jacob into a great nation. God renames Jacob to Israel, which translates to “wrestles with God.”

Then Max continues, “Jacob wrestled with God for the blessing. He wrestled with Esau for the blessing. He wrestled with Isaac for the blessing, with Laban for the blessing, and in each case he eventually prevailed. He wrestled because he recognized that the blessings were worth the struggle. He knew that you only get to keep what you refuse to let go of.”

Here’s another thing I kept thinking about during The Last Jedi: if they don’t keep making Star Wars movies, then what happens to Star Wars? As a story, it has a moral about good and bad. That moral still and always exists, but Star Wars itself exists as a story, and a story exists for the moral. If the moral of these new Star Wars movies is that the story of good versus evil is eternal, then doesn’t the most honest version of Star Wars have to be eternal? If the force always seeks balance, then the force must always exist.

Max Bloch explains further, “It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas. They’re close to us—sometimes so close we think they are a part of use—and then, at some point, they aren’t close anymore. They go away. Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle, we let go go. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is the struggle.”

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The dark side will always exist. There will always be poverty and racism and Harvey Weinstein and the need for lunch, because humans always have the same problems again. That’s the way the world is. Franz Kafka said, “In the fight between you and the world, side with the world.” A man alone cannot beat the world. A lesson in Star Wars is that giving in to rage and hate is the quick path to power. If you love others, you never ascend to power. You give your power away. You don’t die, you just fade away. A man shouldn’t side with the world or conquer the world, he should fight it for his entire life because he loves it.

So, if the Rebellion defeated the Empire in The Return of the Jedi, what happened to turn them into the Resistance against the First Order? I’m not asking that question anymore. Asking that question would mean that I don’t understand Star Wars, and my friends, I understand Star Wars. It’s not about pointing out that Han Solo doesn’t know that a parsec is a measure of distance, it’s about believing that the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. The good guys are the always on the bottom because anything worth having is something we must fight for. It’s something we wrestle with. The Empire is the First Order. Order is peace. The Rebellion is the Resistance. Love is struggle.

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