Lessons from the Star Wars Saga is a series exploring powerful themes in Star Wars. For more than 40 years, the epic adventures in a galaxy far, far away have also been significant explorations of the human experience in our own universe.
“Everybody has the Force,” Star Wars creator George Lucas said in a recent interview. “You have the good side and you have the bad side. And as Yoda says, if you choose the bad side, it’s easy because you don’t have to do anything….But the good side is hard because you have to be compassionate. You have to give of yourself.”
The Jedi Order embodies this ideal on a grand scale, but the two characters who exemplify it best aren’t Jedi at all when we first meet them: a child slave named Anakin Skywalker, and Rey, a young scavenger surviving alone in the Jakku desert.
In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the Skywalkers are compassion incarnate. Anakin lives alone with his mother, Shmi, who reveals that “there was no father.” The boy is innocent, even altruistic, and we can chalk that up to Shmi’s maternal warmth and good nature.
One of the most heroic acts in the film is arguably Anakin’s offer to put his life on the line in the Boonta Eve Classic, one of the most dangerous racing events in the galaxy, in order to pay for the starship parts Padmé and Qui-Gon Jinn desperately need to get to Coruscant. When Shmi protests, her son counters with her own words of wisdom: “Mom, you say the biggest problem in this universe is nobody helps each other.”
Later, Qui-Gon tells Shmi that she should be proud of her son. “He gives without any thought of reward,” he says. The wise Jedi Master, perhaps seeing something of himself in the boy, tries to repay the Skywalkers’ kindness by freeing them both in a game of chance. But Watto’s generosity has its limits, and Shmi is ultimately left behind. Her liberation will have to wait.
When we’re introduced to Rey, the young hero of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she lives alone on Jakku, salvaging the wreckage of a war long past to survive. The first time we see her deliver a day’s worth of goods to Niima Outpost, she’s paid little — in the form of a meal — despite the extent of her labor. The next time Rey delivers a load of scrap to the junk boss Unkar Plutt, she’s being trailed by BB-8, a one-of-a-kind, orange-and-white droid of great importance.
Unkar spots BB-8 rolling along beside her and offers to buy the droid for sixty “portions” – a payday that would keep her belly full of warm meals for the foreseeable future. In Rey’s world, this is a chance at unthinkable luxury. Her mouth hangs open as she approaches the counter to gather up the mountain of portions in her hands, and then suddenly hesitates, eyeing the lone, desperate droid beside her.
“Actually,” she says, “the droid’s not for sale.”
BB-8, as it turns out, is carrying part of a map that both the Resistance and the First Order want to obtain. Rey’s act of selflessness saves the droid from falling into the wrong hands with no thought for reward: no small feat for someone salvaging scraps to survive.
As the Dalai Lama says, compassion, or care for the happiness and well-being of others, is something all human beings share. And it begins at birth. Helpless and hungry, we’re reliant on the nurturing of others from infancy and through childhood; this teaches us to forge connections with one another. But “even more important than the warmth and affection we receive are the warmth and affection we give,” he writes. “It is through giving warmth and affection, through being genuinely concerned for others — in other words, through compassion — that we gain the conditions for genuine happiness. For this reason, loving is of even greater importance than being loved.”
According to scholar Joseph Campbell, the eastern tradition of the bodhisattva — one who is bound for eventual enlightenment, or ascension to “Buddhahood” — “represents the principle of compassion, which is the healing principle that makes life possible. Life is pain, but compassion is what gives it the possibility of continuing.”
I’ll admit that when I first saw Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, I thought Anakin was stretching the truth when he told Padmé compassion was “central to a Jedi’s life.” The idea that Jedi “are encouraged to love” seemed like the kind of thing you’d say to a beautiful senator if you wanted her to fall in love with you, despite whatever the Jedi Code might have to say about it. But now, with years of hindsight, I understand Skywalker was speaking the truth.
Heroism isn’t about brandishing a certain color lightsaber; it’s marked by loving-kindness for all living things.
Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Fangoria, Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.
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