“The Force is with me, and I fear nothing.”
Here’s the problem with the Jedi: you’ll never be a Jedi. Maybe when you first saw STAR WARS as a kid you entertained the idea that you, like Luke Skywalker, were a secret space wizard just waiting to be activated. But as you got older it became pretty clear that this would never happen, that you’d never be a space wizard.
What followed were six more movies about these space wizards, and because they were magic and they were super powered, their beliefs and their philosophy felt ever more remote. What had seemed like such a rich, actionable spiritual concept back in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was reduced to technobabble fantasy in THE PHANTOM MENACE; by the time we got to THE FORCE AWAKENS we had relegated the Force to being a mutant power. The wonder that Luke Skywalker had when first encountering the Force was gone.
But not forgotten. Enter ROGUE ONE, the most spiritual of all the STAR WARS films, a spirituality that can only be achieved by its total lack of Jedi. This film, and especially Chirrut Imwe, returns the Force to its position of magnificent spiritual possibility.
It’s important to note that the Force (once again called The Force of Others in ROGUE ONE, a wonderful name for it that truly evokes the importance of beings besides yourself, that explains the illusion of separation we feel as individuals) isn’t just some made-up magic system. George Lucas had goals with the Force, and one of them was to instill a sense of spirituality in young people. To that end he based his concepts of the Force on existing belief systems, mostly Eastern. You can see a lot of the Tao in the Force, for instance.
When you put a Jedi in the mix the Force gets all distorted. They use it to throw around stormtroopers or to read minds or to do elaborate battle moves, taking the Force out of the realm of the everyday and making it fantastical. But the basic premises of the Force are everyday premises, and they exist even in the world around us. ROGUE ONE, lacking Jedi, allows the STAR WARS saga to finally show how the Force impacts regular folks, and to see how that truth at the heart of the Force – a truth that Lucas cherry-picked from Eastern faiths – is reflected in our own lives.
The Force works subtly in ROGUE ONE. Sure, it sometimes is more obvious – watch Chirrut kick ass without eyesight, or sense the kyber crystal around Jyn’s neck – but in general it moves quietly between these characters. Saw Guerrera sees it in action and is frightened by it – the fact that Jyn shows up just when Bodhi has appeared with a message from Galen is too much of a coincidence for him. It must be a trap. But it’s the Force, moving the pieces it needs into place. As Chirrut notes, all is as the Force wills it.
We are like Saw Guerrera, hesitant to accept the meaning of coincidences in our lives. But they’re real, and we’ve all experienced them. We have all been in the place we need to be at the time we need to be without having planned it; we have all bumped into the one person in the world we needed to bump into at just the right moment. It’s not magic, just as it’s not magic in ROGUE ONE – the circumstances all make sense when laid out, after all. The mistake is looking for magic in these moments, as opposed to understanding that there is a flow to events that is, in some way, purposeful. I hesitate to say what that purpose is or what it serves, but it’s there. The Force, with its dark and lights sides, is as good a name for it as anything else.
Chirrut understands this. I love this monk, a character who shows the true joy that comes from accepting the universe as it is. He believes in the Force and he believes that whatever happens to him is what needs to happen, and it makes him free. It doesn’t absolve him of reponsibility to take action but rather it helps him decide to take the actions that make themselves clear to him. When he goes out of the ship on Eadu to follow Jyn he is taking a direct action that the Force has presented to him, and the result of him taking that action is that he and Baz get to strike decisive blows in the battle that ensues. Too often people think that accepting the purpose of the universe is giving up and letting events run over them; rather it’s about understanding best how to take advantage of events, how to be active in the moment.
A lot of this is discussed in the Original Trilogy. Obi-Wan touches on it with Luke:
Obi-Wan: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
Luke: You mean it controls your actions?
It’s that instinctive part of you that knows what action to take in any moment. A great athlete trains for many hours to just do the thing, and it’s the same for the Jedi. A runner doesn’t make each leg move in front of the other with a willful thought each step – the body knows how to do what it must do to run. The body acts as one, understanding that the goal is to run fast and so the component parts do what they must, without being told – the heart pumps faster, the lungs take in more oxygen, the legs move back and forth, muscles across the body cooperate without conscious choice. That is Chirrut in the Force. That is all of us in the universe.
That’s why Obi-Wan tells Luke to let go at the Death Star trench. It’s why Yoda’s famous line is “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Of course not everybody can believe in the Force. I’m not sure what Cassian Andor thinks of it, as he never really discusses it. Maybe he, like Han Solo, thinks it’s a hokey old religion. But Cassian doesn’t have to recognize the Force to have it move through him and for him to have faith. He may not see it as the Force, he may see it as belief in other people. He believes in the Rebellion, and will do whatever it takes to serve it. Later he believes in Jyn, and he does whatever it takes to serve her.
One of the last conversations Jyn and Cassian has is also one of my favorites. Cassian has shown up in the nick of time to shoot Krennick and Jyn has beamed the Death Star plans to the Rebel flagship. They don’t know what has happened; they have simply done their part and they get no signal in return.
“Do you think anybody is listening?” asks Cassian.
“I do,” says Jyn. “Someone’s out there.”
It’s a little moment, but it’s powerful. It’s faith in action. Weirdly it almost serves as a response to Scorsese’s SILENCE, which spends its whole runtime wrestling with that very question. Just as Bodhi does his part and dies before he sees the fruits (there’s another essay to be written exploring the meaning of his name, by the way), just as Chirrut does his part and dies before he sees the fruits, so Jyn and Cassian do their part and never know what the outcome is. But they have faith – whether it be in the Force or the Rebels – and they take comfort in it at that moment.
“I don’t need luck,” Chirrut says to Baze. “I have you!” And that’s how the Force works.
You don’t have to be a space wizard to feel the Force, or to see it in action around you. You simply have to be open to the idea that there’s a point. That there’s a reason why all these physical laws work, why the fabric of reality exists, why subatomic matter collides and interacts. It doesn’t even have to be a grand point; I have come to believe that reality is simply how the universe experiences itself, and that we are, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, here “to be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe.” Except that I think the universe created itself, but now we’re getting to unknowable semantics.
One last thing about the Force: the part of it I never liked was that it was divided into the light and dark sides. I get it, and light and dark sides of the Force are more about intentions than anything else. It’s like karma; as Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says karmic intentionality is the difference between putting a knife in someone out of anger versus putting a knife in someone to perform surgery. The tool is the same, the arm wielding it is the same, it is only the intention behind the knife that is different. One is good, one is bad, and so it is with the Force.
But black and white duality is insufficient to me. It doesn’t look like the universe I see with my own eyes, a universe where bad things happen for no reason and where people do terrible things with the best of intentions. That there is a line that delineates the dark and the light side of the Force feels juvenile to me. So leave it up to a cartoon to address the issue.
On STAR WARS REBELS a new character has been introduced – the Bendu, voiced by old Doctor Who Tom Baker. Bendu exists at the center between the light and the dark side, representing the balance of the Force that no STAR WARS movie has ever found. You don’t balance the Force by eliminating the dark side, you balance it by living with the dark side. There can be no light without the dark, and there can be no pleasure if there is no pain. Bendu understands this, and he lives and practices at the intersection of the light and the dark, taking a very nuanced view of it all.
You’ll never be a space wizard. But you can be one with the Force, and the Force is with you – even in the real world. The basic concepts that George Lucas laid out decades ago – that we are all connected, that the universe moves in and through us, that we can let go and trust in the universe – are thousands of years old, and very, very true.