Belonging, Meaninglessness, and Star Wars.
On purpose and spirituality.
Epistle no. 2
June 22, 2022
565 Alnitak Rd.
Few things marked my childhood, and have stayed in my imagination longer, than Star Wars. Of course, the light-sabers, and the dogfights, and the aliens were all cool, but I think that for a lot of us who grew up with those movies and with those characters, the thing that stuck with us was their strange and beautiful lessons.
People criticize popular culture for being superfluous and shallow, and for the most part they might be right. I am not willing to say that Star Wars is comparable in artistry or quality to other epics. However, for better or for worse, it became the defining mythology of my youth, and it appropriated the role that those kind of stories had within ancient cultures. I am not sure there is anything like it anymore, except itself. And, I, for once, am glad it was there for me.
There is a lot of merit in the fact that the Jedi, the action heroes and battle masters of these movies, were also deeply spiritual and ritualistic. As a kid, it moved me a lot to think that heroism could be restrained and diplomatic. The most important lesson that Yoda, the old and small sage, teaches Luke, the main character and every-man of the story, is that real strength comes from within. And, not only is internal strength presented in the sense that the Jedi can translate their connection to the spiritual ‘force’ of the universe into wondrous abilities, but also as moral strength– courage, and discipline, and patience. These lessons, whether their metaphysical foundations are analogous or not to our real life universe, where immensely influential for me. They informed the way I thought of myself and who I ought to be.
The Jedi were also how I understood my own religiosity. Jedi knights are part of an ‘order’. They have well established social and civic duties as the ‘peacekeepers and guardians’ of the galaxy. A mix between a priest, a diplomat, and a warrior, the Jedi were who I wanted to be as a child, and the image of their cool but thoughtful poster boy, Obi-wan Kenobi, was especially responsible for my attachment to Christianity. For a kid who struggled to feel included within a social circle; who was afraid of the world around them; and whose family inculcated in them a deep belief in religious teleology, God was a perfect place-holder for the comforting and empowering Force, the church was an obvious stand-in for the Jedi order and their sense of purpose and comradeship, and Obi-wan a role model to follow.
No matter how bad things were, or how daunting life presented itself to be, there was always the soothing knowledge that there is more to life that what we can see or experience with our senses. In Yoda’s words, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” In a galaxy far, far away, the physical ultimately yields to the numinous, and, for a kid who very early on learnt that they were not in any control of the world around them, believing that there is such a thing as the exertion of spiritual strength on the world was very important for a healthy sense of agency and hope.
I learnt to meditate because of Star Wars. Its characters and stories taught me to be mindful of my emotions and the wisdom of restraining my fears. Jedi were meant to keep a healthy mind and body, and so, as a kid, I wanted to do so as well. These are incredibly helpful things to teach a child. However, when the spiritual foundations of these systems, be them religious or fantastical, crumble, so do the practices risk being torn down and abandoned. When I lost my belief in a god, so did I lose the spiritual well from which I so reliably use to draw strength and courage.
There are ‘dark nights of the soul’ in Star Wars. However, they always end with the character whose connection with the numinous is in question being more closely connected to the Force. But, in a world were it is not possible to know of a thing such as the spirit, and for someone who is not willing to take things on faith, the loss of belief or confidence in the ‘luminous’ is much harder to recover from.
Today I long for the days when my day-to-day felt a little more safe, and my self under more confident control, precisely because I had a spiritual crutch to lean on. I find myself revisiting my old friends– Yoda, and Obi-wan, and Luke– and attentively searching their words for some morsel of counsel that may survive a secular metamorphosis.