Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Last Jedi and the lesson of failure

The Last Jedi and the lesson of failure

By Isaac Withers

I grew up on Star Wars. When I was ten, I wanted to be Anakin Skywalker (I tried to get his haircut), I could have told you the name of any of the background aliens in those movies and I spent years duelling my brothers with lightsabres and still do sometimes. When a new Star Wars comes out now, I never think of seeing it without them because we grew up on them together. We’re all now in that group of adults who are hooked on nostalgia and will see a Star Wars movie whatever their quality and talk about them much more than you should any movie. A couple of days before Christmas, we went to see ‘The Last Jedi’ and I knew it’d be something I’d want to write about. Thankfully, it delivered.

Spoilers ahead.

Ok, so there is a super good message to this movie, an uncommon one. Right now there’s a lot of talk going on about the story but I want to hone in on its central theme: failure.

Star Wars, if you’re not a fan, is the general story of the endless struggle between good and evil, the light and dark sides of the force (hard to explain), with the Resistance or Rebellion on the side of the good and an evil empire or something of the sort always on the dark side. That’s basically all you need to know, it's black and white.

In ‘The Last Jedi’ we see the greatest ever hero of the Rebellion, Luke Skywalker, as a disillusioned hermit, living alone on a very Irish looking planet, completely shut off from the rest of the world. He has chosen to opt out of the ongoing war and has grown a beard too to showcase how depressed he is. If you grew up on the originals, you’ve never seen this character like this. He was the wonderkid of those movies, who took down the Empire and was defined by his hope for the redemption of the bad. However, we discover that after all that, he failed to stop one of the next generation of Jedi from going bad, and this failure, leads to him going AWOL. His response to failure is to hide.

There’s a point where Luke is so disillusioned that he goes to burn down all the books of the Jedi, only for Yoda (the guy with the pointy ears) to show up as a ghost (that happens). I don’t remember their whole conversation, but the crux of it, and the moment the movie pivots on, are Yoda’s words to him: ‘failure is the greatest teacher’. Or maybe it’s, ‘the greatest teacher, failure is.’ Who knows. After that, they both sit back and watch the fire burn down the ancient temple of the Jedi. And you know Luke's gonna get it together again, and I got a bit tingly.

Even if you know nothing about these movies, I really thought that was a great core to a film. The idea that failure shouldn't be something that defines us but at the same time could be something we learn from. My parents always told us that if you failed, you should just keep trying even though our instinct is not too, because failing just doesn't feel good. Hearing a childhood hero telling me to learn from failure was a really moving thing. 

I think somewhere at uni, I'd started to only learn from the things that worked. When a project was successful, I’d check it off and apply it somewhere else, bank it away as wisdom. Learning from success is much nicer to your self esteem than learning from failure too, it's just all positive, but I think it became too much of a defining feature for me, the thought that if I put my mind to something it and worked hard enough, I could make it happen.

Having recently started working, I didn’t really stop to readjust my life from the 8 hour a week contact hours of an arts degree to the 8 hours a day of a 9 to 5. About a month ago, that blew up in my face. I was sleeping badly and I was tired all the time and I was becoming aware of doing many things badly instead of a few well, and I found myself dashing to an evening event exhausted and frustrated. I ended up going to the wrong place twice with the joint miscalculations of Google maps and a fried brain.

And it hit me like a wave, this sensation of being overwhelmed. I found a bench in the corner of a Christmas market and just let it happen for a while. I heard London happening around me and I tried to identify what was going on inside me. Eventually I cooled down, stood at the Northern line and tossed a coin to decide whether to go home or to go to the event and it told me to go to the evening so I did and as soon as I saw my friends I was fine. But it was a big moment for me, coming to terms with just how far I had stretched myself.

I did not then go and become a space hermit, or grow a beard. I did drop everything though. I messaged a lot of friends to ask them to cover things and they were all great about it, but I realised just how much in my own head I had begun to define myself by my successes. I read somewhere recently that most people want Jesus as an advisor and not as a king and I was definitely there.

That kind of reassessment has been massively helpful for me and it was something I could only learn when things went wrong. Quickly I had the recurring thought that I wasn't supposed to be living in a way that stressed me out that much. A piece of Scripture that I continually come back to is Jesus' response to the question of what the greatest commandment is.

'Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' 
There is no commandment greater than these.'

Mark 12:30-31 

I love that he says go all out for God but that he also links our ability to love others with our ability to love ourselves. Sometimes we can burn ourselves out trying to help people and make things successful, but overlooking ourselves actually undermines that. It's as true in Star Wars as it is in life. Luke gets it back together when he gets over his shame at failing and knows his value again. This quote came to mind too:

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, 
we are the sum of the Father’s love for us 
and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”

St. Pope John Paul II

Ultimately, our failings are part of our human experience and, like everything else, they show us who we are a bit clearer, but neither our successes nor our failures should come to define us. When we see Jesus in the manger at this time of year, we are able to see God's own approach to success and failure in his choice to enter into the world as the poor and insignificant, not as a worldly king. I'm still learning from that from him and I imagine I always will be.

‘It would make no sense for God to do that, if God were into power like us. 
It would make absolutely no sense for God to become one of us, 
to become poor, helpless, a baby, 
if he valued all the same things that fallen humanity valued... 
If God is love, then God made flesh makes perfect sense.’

Chris Stefanick


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