Changing Fate: What I Learned from Return of the Jedi

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I’ve got to confess: I didn’t see A New Hope in theatres. And I can’t even remember when or where I first saw Empire. But I do remember seeing Return of the Jedi in a multiplex somewhere. It’s tough to recall how much I knew of the mythos at that point but once I saw Luke somersault off the plank of that sail barge over the Sarlacc pit, I was all in. Jabba’s obese folds and slimy tongue clued me in that he was a bad guy and everything else I really needed to know to understand the stakes sort of fell into place. And, no, I didn’t despise the Ewoks. In fact, I thought their little tree city was the bomb.

Growing up, I learned how George Lucas wove stuff like Saturday morning serials, Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces into his movies. But, Return of the Jedi really resonated with me because of what it says about what people can do with what life gives them. Losing his hand, the poignant last meeting with Master Yoda, and the final showdown with the Emperor all upend Luke Skywalker’s worldview and could have sent him hurtling to the Dark Side. My parents divorced when I was eight. I have no real memory of them ever living together and this kind of helped me identify with Luke. He’d grown up without a dad like me. My dad isn’t an evil Sith Lord but what Luke and I had in common was the desire for a bond with that lost parent, to redeem that lost relationship. And then, even when you get the chance, the temptation to give into anger and spite is strong.

Without getting into specifics, I’ve got a good relationship with my dad now. Before, I had only absence and rage. I think Star Wars had something to do with that. To me, the Star Wars movies mean you have a choice as to what kind of person you want to be. Han Solo, self-serving smuggler, decides to help the Rebel Alliance. Lando’s gut-wrenching betrayal get displaced by his subsequent redemption. And, of course, Darth Vader snatches back his soul from Emperor Palpatine in his last moments.

In the old mythological stories Lucas used for inspiration, the heroes couldn’t  change their fates. Their punishments, deaths or ascensions to celestial status were up to the mercy of the gods. But, neither Luke Skywalker nor his father left their fates up to those more powerful than them. They became their own gods. I could do the same thing, Jedi told me. I could take the loneliness, the despair and the racist condescension the world threw at me, find their flip sides and turn them into something else. I didn’t craft a lightsaber. What I did make was a sense of self that tries to manage anger and find ways to be generous.

That last shot of Jedi–with the Force ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan and the redeemed Anakin Skywalker–has always stayed with me since I was 12. It’s a symbolic assurance that, yeah, there is peace when you choose the better part of your nature. It’s not always easy but it’s worth it. When I have kids, I’ll make sure they thrill to the Battle of Hoth and the franchise’s lightsaber duels, too. But I’ll also make sure they absorb the lesson that they can always be the ones who create a New Hope.