On the tragic symmetry of Star Wars and the grace of failure.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
To imbibe the words of a certain space wizard, “from a certain point of view” George Lucas’s Skywalker Saga is a poetic space opera that disseminates a uniquely hopeful story of victory through failure. Some might find that articulation of a tale about spaceships and laser-swords a bit too flowery and pretentious, especially considering how the saga eventually concluded (thankfully, we aren’t talking about that part). But be that as it may, there is a bevy of catharsis to be found within the failures of two of the most prominent Jedi that populate the galaxy far, far away.
The similarities between Master Yoda’s and Luke Skywalker’s stories could not be greater. They both, of course, represent the best the “Jedi order” has to offer. Yet, at the same time, their idealistic devotion to the Jedi religion is also what leads to their distinctive downfalls. Both masters of their creed, Yoda and Luke experience grievous falls from grace after cataclysmic tragedies that leave the blood squarely on their hands. They are each involved in epic snafus stemming from an altruistic motive to train future Jedi knights, the results of which leave both masters sequestered in self-imposed exile.
Their stories of failure converge in, perhaps, the best scene in the entire sage (yes, I said it), when the force-ghost of Master Yoda visits Luke in his despondent “fortress of solitude.” Our familiar hero opines his failures as a Jedi, citing all the ways he failed his family, his nephew, and even the galaxy itself. But, without missing a beat, the pointy-eared sage drops his Jedi cloak and dons a cleric’s robe to deliver, perhaps, the most fitting “word in season” to one who was weary. (Is 50:4) “Pass on what you have learned,” Yoda affirms. “Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters.” Amen.
The failure of Luke Skywalker was not that his apprentice, Kylo Ren, betrayed the Jedi way by succumbing to the dark side’s allure. (Spoiler alert!) His failure was thinking he could replicate himself in his apprentice in the first place. In that way, Luke’s story serves as a parable for what we often believe of ourselves. We witness the failures of our parents and brazenly proclaim, “I’ll never do that. I’ll never make those mistakes.” Never realizing that failure is a gift. The blunders of those who have gone before are not blemishes easily buffed-out through meticulous energy and efficiency. Rather, they are scars that are meant to remind us, guide us, and advise us. Such is what Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman suggests in a recent article published on his blog:
I think failure is far more important than success. Not everybody succeeds. Failure is the true universal experience. Learning to deal with failure is certainly among the most important skills in life. It is also essential for being a Christian.
The general experience of failure is that it is accompanied by shame. When we fail, we feel that we have not only fallen short by some external measure but have fallen short as a person. We feel diminished and of less worth. For some, this experience has been internalized to such an extent as to be their default self-perception. That’s the voice of toxic shame . . . We are who God says we are, not what our failures would seek to make of us.
Many times the strength of God is made complete simply as we sit in His presence and acknowledge our failure. This acknowledgement is bearable when we allow our failure to be captured and swallowed by His strength . . . our uncritical acceptance of the culture-myths that surround modern success have left us deaf to the words of the gospel and the true good of our soul. If we listened carefully for that true good, we would have less fear of failure and greater confidence in God who called to Himself those who labor and are heavy-laden. His yoke is easy.
The burden of every master — or teacher, or parent, or authority figure — is not to reproduce little versions of themselves. The bidding instead is to ensure successors are well versed in one’s experiences, failures and all. Replication is not the mandate. Transformation is. And transformation only comes through failure.
Such is what makes The Last Jedi so resonant, so appealing. (To me, at least.)
The scars that led Luke to experience his own “toxic shame” and fall from grace were those that marred the face of his father, Darth Vader. (Spoiler alert!) Luke mistakenly bought into the great lie of the Sith — namely, that the past is not a schoolmaster from which one can learn; it is something that must be strangled. “Let the past die, kill it if you have to,” we are told by Luke’s ex-apprentice. But such advice has never yet — nor ever will — lead to any amount transformation, let alone salvation. That is only experienced as you come to recognize the grace of failure and ruin.
Fortunately for you and I, we are not led by the scars of a disgraced “Jedi-turned-Dark-Lord-of-the-Sith.” Instead, we are led by the One whose scars stem not from his own failures but from an embrace of and identification with our own. The One who was beaten and bruised because of our catastrophic rebellion. The One whose scars inspire the refrain, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28) The One whose scars allow us to believe, “from a certain point of view,” on a hill he spoke into existence, the grace of failure.