Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Luke, Who Is Your Father?": Fathers and Sons and Star Wars

I'm sure that the musings below are not an original idea.  So my apologies to those who have written about this more intelligently than me.

With all of the Star Wars mania in the recent weeks with the new teaser, I began reflecting on the Saga as a whole.  A good friend of mine, the Doctor, was telling me about showing his son the original trilogy for the first time.  This is one of my own personal dreams for when God gives my wife and I children.  We share our stories because when we do, a little bit of what is in our mind/soul will then exist in another.

But this got me to thinking about fathers and sons and Star Wars.

Star Wars is pure mythology, particularly the hero myth outlined by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces.  But there are many more mythological elements touched upon that are just as rich to the human experience.

One of them is the relationship of sons and fathers.

For the purpose of this article, I will focus purely on that dynamic.  Much of what is written here could be applicable to other relationships between mother/father/son/daughter.  But there are important nuances that differentiate all of those relationships that change the nature of what is discussed.

In the original Star Wars, Luke idealizes his father.  Even though his Uncle Owen told him that Anakin had a humdrum job of being a navigator on a spice freighter, that didn't stop Luke from leaving his little desert planet and flying across the stars.  So strong is Luke's idolization of Anakin that Owen won't even let him inherit his father's lightsaber from Kenobi.  That alone, it was feared, would send him on some "damn fool idealistic crusade."  And even when Yoda asks Luke in The Empire Strikes Back why he wishes to become a Jedi, Luke's answer is, "mostly because of my father, I guess."

But that is the way I think most of us begin by looking at our fathers.  They are giants.  They are supermen who are strong and stern and stalwart.  They stand between you and the big bad world.  They are every young boys primarily model of manhood.  An imprint is made in the tablua rasa of the child's mind of what nature of a man should be.

When I was young, my father had that same effect on me.  As a doctor, he always seemed to have all of the answers floating around his head.  His stern presence was enough to keep me in line most of the time.  But there was a power to him that gave my life solid footing.

When I was very young, around 3rd grade, I started suffering horrible panic attacks.  I never told anyone about this at the time because I didn't understand what I was feeling (fyi I was essentially experiencing existential terror at the realization that this life ends and the enormity of what eternity could mean).  I remember hiding in my room or bathroom when they would hit.  In fact, once we were at a Pizza Hut waiting for my dad for family dinner when I became overwhelmed and excused myself to the restroom where I had a mini-freak out.  But when I came out, I saw my Dad and then I was fine. He didn't say or do anything particularly reassuring.  He was just there.  He was solid.  He was strong.

He was my dad.

Somehow I knew everything was going to be okay with him around.  It was like the time I had chicken pox and he stayed up the entire night taking care of me.  He was a figure who loomed large and cast a gigantic shadow on my life, unlovable as a mountain.  And even though it was my brother and not me who followed in his footsteps to become a doctor, I molded a lot of who I was after him mentally and emotionally.

And that's what Luke does.  Watch the first movie again and you can almost hear the thoughts in Luke's head, imagining how his father would react, how his father would adventure, how his father would be a hero.

But then things turn darker.  It turns out that Luke's greatest enemy is none other than his father.  His father pursues him, ruins his plans, keeps him down, symbolically emasculates him (cutting off the lightsaber?), and tries to bully him into giving up his ideals.

There is a reason why the line, "I am your father," is burned into the collective brain of the movie-loving world.  It isn't just that it was a fantastic narrative twist.  It is because we all universally understood what this meant.  We all remember the times in our lives when our fathers' were our enemies.

As I got older, my father and I had a sour relationship.  For reasons that I will not go into here, back in high school I hated my father.  I looked at him as an emotional bully who enjoyed getting under my skin.  He kept trying to get me do thinks I didn't want to do (like join the hockey team).  He never seemed to support me in anything I thought was important.  He harassed me constantly about school and my friends.

He even forgot my own birthday.

My parents were divorced and I was convinced that he was at the root of it.  I did not like any of his subsequent girlfriends and I always thought he took their side over mine.

He was everything I did not want to be.  He was scientific, I went artistic.  He was a workaholic, I became lazy.  He was very practical, I immersed myself in imagination.

All those qualities of strength made him an almost insurmountable adversary.  And that is how Vader is to Luke.

But when I saw Return of the Jedi, Luke did something my young mind could not quite comprehend.  Instead of destroying and overcoming Vader, Luke reaches out to him in love.

Luke grows up.

He is not a naive youth.  He says to Vader, "I accept the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father."  He understands that he may not be able to change Vader.  But he holds onto hope.  And as his power increases and the dynamic of their relationship shift, Luke realizes that he has indeed, overcome his father.  His father goads him into one last confrontation and Luke ends up lumbering over him triumphant, emasculating Vader (again with the cutting off of the lightsaber?).

But in that moment he sees the bogeyman built up in his mind as a vulnerable, broken man with his hand up for mercy.  Luke stands up for him and lays down his life for his father.  And when Vader is redeemed, Luke can finally see his father for the first time.

That moment when Luke removes Vader's helmet is the most poignant of the entire series.  Luke see's his father as he is.  Anakin is not a flawless hero.  He is also not a shadowy monster.  He is a man.  He is broken and battered by life, but he is just what he always was: a man.

And this is also important because Anakin looks on Luke for the first time with his own eyes, meaning the eyes of truth.  He sees his son for the first time not as the child he has been towering over.  He sees Luke for who he is: a man.

After I had my spiritual conversion when I was 17, I had the life-changing realization that my father wasn't perfect, but he was the best father he knew how to be.  There is a long story that follows what happened between the two of us that I will share at another time.

But like Luke, I saw my dad for the first time not as the mountain of strength he was for me as a child nor as the monster of my teen years.  I saw him for he was: a man.

My father is not perfect.  But he has been through more than I have and he has the scars to prove it.  I look at him with a different kind of awe than I had a child.  A mountain can stand tall in the hurricane of life, but how do you do it as a man?  How did he remain so strong for his family when he had so much loneliness?  How did it break his heart to have someone with whom he felt romantic love only to have them at odds with the children he loved more than his own life?

I don't think I'll ever really comprehend how a man does that.

But I wanted to know more about him.  I became fascinated by the stories of my father when he was young.  This fascination hit me only after I saw him as he was.  And then I realized the obvious truth.  My father was a child.  My father was a teenager.  My father made mistakes.

And that is why the Prequel Trilogy is also important to Luke's story.  Once you go through the journey and accept that your dad is a man, you want to understand that man's history.  You want to know what his life was like as a child (The Phantom Menace), you want to hear about all his crazy teenage troubles (Attack of the Clones), and you want to learn about the pains in his life that gave him his scars (Revenge of the Sith).

So what now?

I am thinking about the coming Trilogy and what it can say to us about fathers and sons.  I do not know any plot details, but I'm hoping that it continues the story.  Now that Luke has been through the journey, what is the next natural step?  Becoming the father.

I am still waiting for that in my life.  But I am preparing for the universal story to be played out again with me and my son.  I hope that Luke has learned from his father and will honor him by doing better.

And I pray that I do the same.

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