Facing the Shadow in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

More conversations with others about “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” have provoked more thoughts.

Why is it that Rey so easily walks away from the temptation of the Dark Side after being immediately drawn to it? “You went right to it,” Luke says, in fear. Luke fears the Dark Side more than anything, which makes sense: his own father fell to it and for decades committed genocide on a more-than-global level. When Luke goes into the pit on Dagobah at Yoda’s insistence to face his fear, he fails; he attacks the menacing figure, finds only his own face behind it. He never loses this fear. Darth Vader can provoke him to anger by suggesting the Leia can be seduced to the Dark Side. It doesn’t happen, but it stays in Luke’s mind, and when he realizes how powerful his sister’s son is, his fear leads him to a fatal misstep: he stands over Ben with his light saber humming, ready to kill him, and this betrayal is what pushes Ben away from him and into his own fall to the Dark Side.

Luke runs away and hides after that. He cuts himself off from the Force and lives as a hermit . . . until his sister calls out to him. Leia was always the “call to adventure” for him, the voice spurring him to take up his role as Hero.

Yet Luke compounds his earlier mistake by taunting Ben, now Kylo Ren. He does so to distract Ben and allow the last of the Resistance to escape, but even as he does so he knows that “if you strike me down in anger I will never leave you.” He pushes Ben to attack his former teacher knowing full well that it will scar Ben even more. Luke has no faith in his ability to reach Ben. He still fears too much.

Rey does something different. She too goes into the pit, but she goes of her own volition, following her instincts. She too finds only her own face, but instead of recoiling in fear, she becomes curious and explores the situation.

Jung talked a lot about the shadow, the unseen, denied part of ourselves that we like to pretend is not us but outside us. The people we hate and fear the most are usually our shadow-bearers, the people we scapegoat instead of owning up to our own undesirable traits. The more we deny the shadow, the larger it grows and the more it controls us. The only way to diminish the shadow’s power is to turn and face it and embrace it as our own, as part of us. If we can do this, usually we find that the source of the shadow is something quite small, an incident from childhood perhaps that when seen through adult eyes shrinks to near insignificance. But as long as we refuse to look, the shadow will loom monstrously over us.

Rey looks, and not with fear but with curiosity. She doesn’t see all of her shadow though. No one ever can, but the beauty of being in relationship with others is that they can often see what we can’t. Her bond with Ren allows him to see what she has yet to come to grips with: that she was abandoned by parents who saw her as having no more value than the price of a few drinks. Heavy stuff. But adult Rey is able, even while feeling the pain of that abandonment, to realize that she is a worthwhile person in her own right; whether or not her parents knew it, she knows it.

Ben suffered a worse abandonment when Luke drew his light saber against him. At that moment he saw himself in Luke’s look of horror: not just as valueless but as someone so evil he had to be destroyed by the one person he looked up to more than anyone . . . and by proxy, the parents who sent him to that person. He does not know that at the moment he woke and saw Luke standing over him, Luke saw him for who he really was—instead of Luke’s projected fear—and immediately overcame the impulse. Too late.

The damage is done. Ben flees to Snoke, who encourages him to become Kylo Ren: exactly what Luke and his parents fear. This is how it works: unless we become conscious of the projections others put on us, we tend to live up—or down—to those expectations. Ben is unconsciously thinking “you think I’m bad? Just watch how bad I can be!”

Why is it that Rey can see through the shadow when Luke and Ben can’t? Why is she able to stay in the pit and examine the projection of herself without recoiling in fear? Why does the Dark Side have no power over her?

One accesses the Force, all the Jedi Masters keep saying, through feelings. Is the “Dark Side” nothing more than being too emotional, losing control? Darth Vader and Snoke and Kylo Ren are all prey to rage: they kill people in knee-jerk reactions to being thwarted or disappointed. Emotionally they’re like two-year-olds throwing tantrums when life doesn’t go the way they want it to.

If that’s the case, then is the “light” anything more than being at ease with feelings, able to work with them, know them for what they are without being controlled by them? The Jedi do seem to be kind, indulgent of mistakes, able to laugh at foibles, and above all, concerned with the well-being of others. One could say they are motherly, even. They are emotional grownups.

And they care for each other. When Luke can’t bring himself to destroy the lore of the Jedi, Yoda does it for him—and then they sit and warm themselves by the bonfire like the old companions they are.

Dark Lords don’t have friends. Friendship requires both trust and the ability to overlook another’s faults, even to love those faults. And when another can love us warts and all, it helps us to love ourselves. Which makes it a lot easier to stop being controlled by the shadow. Luke ought to know this. It was love, after all, that saved his father in the end. I predict that love will save Ben too.



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