Rose Tico has the wisdom of the Buddha.
“That’s how we’ll win,” she tells Finn in The Last Jedi. “Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”
Those words echo the Buddha’s in The Dhammapada:
“Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”
Eternal as in, it’s also true in a galaxy far, far away.
There’s a lot in The Last Jedi that speaks to our current moment, but perhaps nothing so immediately as this line from Rose. We live in a world consumed by hatred and anger, and it’s not all coming from the bad guys. No, a lot of it is coming from the ‘good guys,’ from the side of peace and love and progressiveness.
Look, you’d need the patience of a Buddha to not feel anger and even hatred when confronted with rising neo-Nazis, when reading about Trump’s latest attacks on human decency, when looking truthfully at the ravages inflicted by post-Reagan capitalism run amok. To have these feelings arise is human and understandable. It’s not wrong to feel that way.
Where it gets tricky is when we cling to those feelings, when we allow them to have control. You’ve seen Inside Out – you know that each of the emotions has their place, but that they don’t all get equal time driving the brain. Anger is vital, but when he’s running the show things get out of hand quickly.
“Anger is an energy,” John Lydon sang, and for decades this was a guiding principle for me. My anger was my furnace, and resentments and slights (real and imagined) fueled it. I would reach a new level in my career and rather than feel positive about it, I would think about all the people who had wronged me or rejected me and about how much I was showing them. I never truly enjoyed the fruits of my hard work because, for much of my life, those fruits were bitter with resentment (it’s worth noting that while I have experienced a profound change in perspective in the last 14 months, that change was actually beginning BEFORE I hit my bottom. It doesn’t take cataclysmic bad times to change your perspective, but they make your perspective change faster).
And anger IS an energy… just as coal is a fuel source. Yeah, you CAN burn coal, but the result is terrible pollution, and the way you get coal in the first place is dirty and dangerous and hurts people and the environment. We understand that when it comes to generating electricity some energy sources are preferable to others. So it is with generating action.
Anger will motivate you to take action, but it will motivate you in negative ways, and the actions you take will, inevitably, be about hurting people. That’s because anger is sending you to fight what you hate, and when you hate someone you see them as less than human. Our brains work that way – we’re able to code people as Other in such a way that allows us to do unspeakable things to them.
Take for instance my own experience. During the height of the GamerGate mishigoss I gleefully made my way across the Internet slinging insults and woundful witticisms at people whenever possible. What I really enjoyed was taking a tweet from someone I didn’t like and quote it out to my tens of thousands of followers, with my own ‘witty’ remark attached, and watch as the followers mobbed up on the original tweeter. It was justice, I felt – this person had a Bad Take. They may even have been a troll or a Nazi, and clearly they DESERVED whatever they got because those views/actions made them less human than I was. And that led to me being angrier all the time, and turning that anger on anyone who crossed my path. It made me ugly.
This happens all day every day on Twitter, and what’s amazing is how many of the people who do it are the same people complaining about bullying on the platform. Come in close and let me whisper a truth in your ear: you’re bullying the Nazis. We don’t love to think that way – we’ve placed a value judgment on the word ‘bullying,’ which basically makes it mean ‘being cruel to someone I like’ – but it’s the truth. If you think it’s wrong for an Alt-Right figure to send his ten thousand followers to clown a person you agree with, it’s also wrong to do the same to the Alt-Right figure. Someone will pop in with talk about punching up/down, but that’s a tactics argument, not a true ethics argument. If you think punching is wrong, you have to allow for it to be wrong in all directions.
But your hatred makes that unclear to you. You see the Alt-Right figure as less than human. And once that anger gets burning, it consumes everything. I’m not going to make the argument that being mean to Nazis makes them bigger Nazis, I’m only going to make the argument that being mean to Nazis makes you mean. Period.
We see this all the time. When the tenor of the conversation gets so shrill – starting with people ‘righteously’ clowning on the bad guys – the energy of that conversation then turns towards people we agree with. See, when we turn our minds to anger and hatred then anger and hatred become the dominant filters through which we see the world. We train ourselves to react using anger and hatred, and so when someone we otherwise agree with says something we don’t like, we default to anger and hatred as a way of responding.
You don’t have to take my word on this. Look at left wing Twitter and see how people who agree on 98% of things will have bloody, horrible battles about the 2% on which they disagree. I’m not saying people shouldn’t disagree – and disagree vocally! – I’m simply pointing out that we have lost the ability to disagree in any way other than going for the kill.
Take it back to Star Wars: this is how the Dark Side of the Force operates. Kylo Ren is consumed by his anger – a palpable, throbbing energy that animates him in every frame – and that anger puts him into action. What’s fascinating in The Last Jedi is that his action is… maybe the right course of action? Leaving behind the cyclical story that has done nothing for the galaxy, shedding the expectations of Jedi/Sith, Rebels/Empire and finding a new path (a Middle Way, perhaps) makes a lot of sense. Many people walk out of The Last Jedi with the distinct sense that Kylo Ren was right.
But the anger that motivates him twists his rightness; his intentions are all wrong, even if they lead him in the right direction. The ends, it turns out, don’t justify the means because dirty means lead to dirty ends. Your intentions matter.
This is what Rose understands. Lashing out at the ram cannon isn’t going to save the Resistance; only saving each life is going to save the Resistance. And yes, she puts her life in danger to do this, but she understands that intention is everything – if she died there then the way that she died would have meaning. Unlike Finn she wasn’t going on a suicide mission to strike a symbolic blow, she was taking action to save a life. She was using love, while Finn was using hate (I think we can all agree that a futile gesture of self-destruction is simply a way of saying “I hate you” to the thing against which you’re fighting. In fact, you’re defining yourself by your hate in that moment).
In Star Wars the Sith are able to achieve astonishing feats of power, but they do it by corrupting themselves absolutely. This is what makes Luke’s final moments so amazing to me – he is able to achieve an astonishing feat of power, but one that is non-violent. He doesn’t confront the hatred of Kylo Ren with hatred, but rather with equanimity (the closest translation of that Dhammapada quote above? The word “love” should really be “non-hate,” but “love” sounds better and is often used in translations. “Non-hate” includes stuff like compassionate patience and equanimity), and he defeats him. What’s more, he saves the Resistance in the process.
If Luke showed up in person he would have been forced to either do battle with Kylo or he would have been forced to let Kylo kill him, a la Obi-Wan. Either of these two options would have increased hate; Luke is a Jedi Master, but we have seen that he’s got plenty of anger still bubbling under his surface. Meeting force with force would not solve this problem in a bigger sense, and it maybe wouldn’t even buy the Resistance the time they needed to vamoose.
This is what makes Luke’s sacrifice different from Finn’s attempted sacrifice; one was meaningless and came from a place of hopelessness (an emotion attached to fear, which is a progenitor of anger and hate) while the other was an act of love. Even in the midst of his ultimate Jedi mind trick, Luke was approaching Kylo with compassion and love.
Okay, let’s tie all of this unwieldy stuff up. The lesson we learn from the ending of this movie is this: hate and anger only beget hate and anger (see Three Billboards for a further discourse on this). That’s not only from outside, but from in as well – the more we focus on and use these emotions, the more those emotions become dominant. Think of your emotions like your muscles; the ones you use the most will be the ones in the best shape.
But this doesn’t mean we don’t take action. Too often people interpret love and compassion as inactive, when they’re anything but. Compassion is WAY harder than hate, and it requires a lot more action on your part. We take action to save what we love, to show that we care, and to even give compassion to those who want to hurt us.
Which means we don’t just ignore the bad guys. That isn’t the answer. But the answer also isn’t fighting them with their own tactics. As the Star Wars Saga shows, you may win one war only to find the exact same goddamn war starting up again – you defeated a symptom, not the cause. And in fact the anger and hate you used to defeat the symptom? That’s part of the cause that leads to all this conflict.
We confront the bad guys with non-hatred, and we do what we can to protect those we love. Yeah, sometimes you punch a Nazi. I think that can be justified situationally. I don’t think that spending your day on Twitter yelling at people can be particularly justified. If you can’t think of a way to defend what you love without yelling at people then you’re not being imaginative enough. Look how imaginative Luke got.
You are what you think. This isn’t hocus pocus or namby pamby shit – science proves this. Neuroplasticity is a thing – we can change how our brain works by concentration and mindfulness. We can think ourselves to new minds. But that also means we can think ourselves to dark places and we can think ourselves into being mean and hateful.
In the cartoon Star Wars Rebels there’s a creature called The Bendu, who is an ancient being who communes with the Force in ways humans can’t understand. He looks at the Jedi and the Sith and he laughs, because he understands that there is no Dark Side or Light Side of the Force, there’s just the Force. It’s all about how you use it. This is the true balance that everybody has been yapping about in Star Wars for decades. And it’s the balance that we all should seek in ourselves. Yes, there is anger that will arise – the “Dark Side of the Force” exists, and it’s a necessary counterpart to the “Light.” We don’t need to fear the anger and hate, we simply don’t need to give in to them and allow them control.
(Thanks to Joe Faraci for reminding me that Rose’s words echo the Buddha’s)