Archive for category Star Wars

You Seek Yoda!

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

About a year and a half ago I had a number of Star Wars themed posts, thanks to my kids becoming totally immersed in the story, playing Wii Lego Star Wars, learning the characters (even minor ones I’d never heard of like Bobo Fett or Captain Rex) and building ships with Legos.   Alas, their video interests shifted.   Ryan got into a video game which had him becoming a mercenary battling Universal Petroleum in Venezuela, both became engulfed in the world of Pokemon, and Star Wars was forgotten.   I got Blu Ray discs of the entire movie series for Christmas which remained unwatched as the kids dominated the television watching “The Regular Show,” “Pheneas and Ferb,” and “Good Luck Charlie.”

I actually truly enjoy both Phineas and Ferb and “Good Luck Charlie” – two of the shows the kids are into these days!

But this week for some reason Star Wars returned, and in fact we’ve been going through the series from episode 1 to episode 6.   I’ve never actually watched them in that order before.   The last time I watched all six within a period of a week or two it was 4, 5 and 6 followed by 1, 2 and 3 – the order in which they were released.   After all, that’s how fans experienced them.    Yet for the boys that order made no sense — and it’s been a pleasure (even if it meant that a couple of beautiful afternoons were spent indoors – Star Wars is worth sacrificing an afternoon of outdoor play).

First, when watched in the “proper” order, it is very clearly the story of the redemption of Anakin Skywalker.   When the first trilogy came out it was not; Luke was the hero and Darth Vader was his nemesis.   Only in episode five (“The Empire Strikes Back”) did it get revealed that Vader was Luke’s father, with Yoda only hinting that he might have a twin (“There is another,” he replies to Obi Wan’s spirit after Obi Wan says Luke is their last hope.)

Some of George Lucas’ colleagues were upset with all this in episode five, especially bringing in the Emperor as the master of evil, thereby diminishing Vader in the Vader vs. Luke dynamic.    Episode Six was about Luke becoming a Jedi, saving his father’s soul and learning he had a sister.   But Anakin Skywalker was important only in a symbolic way, we connected with the son finding closure over not growing up with a father.   How Anakin fell or why was unknown.   In fact, Leia even vaguely remembered her mom — which now has to be seen as either an error or a sign that the force can cause even newborns to commit a scene to memory.

Yoda’s encounter with Chewbacca in Episode 3 adds to the sense that he and Han Solo were guided by destiny, even as Solo dismissed “the Force” as silly superstition

But watching episodes four through six right after the first three caused me to see the originals in a new way — a way one could not have seen them thirty years ago.   I could imagine Anakin’s voice behind Vader’s supposedly synthesized voice.  I could see Anakin’s personality in Episode V as he tries to convince Luke to join him and rule the galaxy as father and son.    Anakin’s break from the dark side to betray the Emperor was not just about a father seeing his son being killed, but a recapturing of the good that Padme and Luke knew was still in him.

Watching this, I had to marvel at the story telling power that George Lucas commands.   In his prequels he put together a stand alone story with power.   The last thirty minutes of Episode 3 are riveting.   But for fans willing to think about the original series with an open mind, he created a new, deeper and more meaningful experience.   From the city planet of Coruscant there is the feel of shifting from political intrigue to a raw feel of the rebellion in the original films.   Their lower tech effects don’t stand out as the story is put in a simpler setting.

George Lucas also added bits and made improvements in the originals.   Some fans thought that was sacrilege, messing with a classic product.  But Lucas is an artist who wants to improve and perfect his work.    I respect that.

Star Wars would not have come into being if Lucas wasn’t a stubborn fighter willing to follow his vision despite criticism. So when he wants to make changes to improve his originals and some fans scream foul, it’s in keeping with the spirit of Star Wars that he does what he wants, despite criticism.

And ultimately what makes this more than just another action series is not only the cultural impact it had when released, but depth of thought in the story line.  It’s fast paced and action packed with a subtle philosophy of the force and the power of calm courage against fear and hatred.    Where Batman might just be a vigilante against villains, Star Wars represents the power of patience, ethics and a sense of unity against fear, anger and greed.   Star Wars is good vs. evil both in terms of the people and their values.   The message touches something inside.

Though he slaughtered children, destroyed a planet, and killed without mercy or regret, Darth Vader still had good in his hear and could be redeemed.

After all, what other movies from the 70s generate such interest and passion, even among six year olds?   And maybe as we head into our daily routines we can think about Yoda’s message.   Be patient and calm,  avoid fear and anger, focus on one’s higher self and deal with the problems as they arise, living in the present and not fretting about past or future.   Perhaps most important is to seek the good in others, understanding and forgiving their failures.  After all, if Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader can be redeemed, couldn’t anyone?   May the Force Be With You.

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1977: Illusions and Star Wars

1977 may not be remembered as an especially important year, even though it started with Commodore demonstrating the first personal computer – the Commodore PET – in early January.   Gerald Ford was finishing out his short term as President, while Jimmy Carter was getting ready to move into the White House.   But in 1977 three pieces of popular culture were released which represent major reflections of and influences on my world view.

On May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox released a film many in the company thought would not be worth the $12 million they spent producing it: Star Wars.    It was the creation of George Lucas whose surprise hit American Graffiti  had given him the credibility to pitch this sometimes silly sounding story of good vs. evil in a galaxy far, far away to the movie execs.   Sci-fi films rarely made much money, though.   Moreover it opened at only about 40 theaters because of lack of interest.

Yet from that first day it was an instant hit, with lines in every city where it was shown.    Most people think that a smart strategy of hitting sci-fi conventions and releasing a comic strip before the movie’s release generated enough beneath the radar buzz to turn what some expected to be a flop into a major success.  In any event, overnight it changed the film industry and unleashed a phenomenon that spread across the country.   Now almost 35 years later my 8 and 5 year old sons know every character, have toy light sabres, Star Wars Lego sets and video games.    3D versions of the films will start being released to theaters next year — the force is still with us.

On July 7, 1977 (7/7/77) the struggling band Styx released The Grand Illusion.   Styx had hit the big time with the single Lady, but its two recent LPs Equinox and Crystal Ball failed to push them to the next level; Crystal Ball  actually undersold Equinox.    The release was met with a yawn.   The first single from the album, Come Sail Away, moved slowly up the charts and seemed to stall.    Then suddenly it took off to the top ten.   The album quickly went platinum and Styx became a certified big time act.   They would dominate the concert circuit and LP sales for the next five years, the largest and most successful act of the late seventies/early eighties.

Also in 1977 author Richard Bach published Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, a follow up to his unexpected best seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which had been published in 1970.   Illusions would not sell nearly as well as Seagull had, but when I read it I was amazed.  It not only reflected thoughts I had inside about the nature of reality, it also helped shape how I look at the world.    The book exemplifies a kind of new age spiritual philosophy, a bit neo-Platonist, and one which if embraced requires one to take full responsibility for every aspect of ones’ own life.

What sets Illusions apart from other spiritual descriptions of life, or ideological attempts to define what life means and how one should live is the books final thought:  Everything in this book may be wrong.   Bach did not provide dogma around which cultists would gather, he presented his personal philosophy in story form, allowing readers to find it as persuasive as they wished, reminding them that it’s just his interpretation of experience.   Unlike religious leaders he did not claim divine authority; unlike some philosophers, he did not claim to have discovered truth.

Styx album The Grand Illusion has a similar theme — ‘if you think your life is complete confusion because your neighbor’s got it made, just remember it’s a grand illusion, and deep inside we’re all the same.’   Yet the album focused less on giving a world view than reflecting the way in which America’s cultural embrace of materialism and consumerism lead to a dead end.   We can fall under the spell of believing we need wealth, beauty and fame, but in the end those things aren’t real — they are illusions.   From the biting cynicism of Miss America, the hopeful escapism of Come Sail Away to the introspective Man in the Wilderness, the album explores the human quest to find meaning in modern America from a number of perspectives.    Whatever the external trappings or competitions won and lost, we still ask “who the hell we are.”   The Grand Illusion remains my favorite album of all time.

Star Wars, of course, contained similar allusions.   We are surrounded by an invisible force that permeates and unites all that is; reality is much deeper than its material appearance. George Lucas studied mythology as he designed the story, casting it as good vs. evil, and ultimately a story of the redemption of what might be one of the heinous criminals one can imagine.   On the surface it was a throw back to the old Flash Gordon type serials of the fifties, when the good guys were very good and the bad folk were pure evil.

It was fun, the mysticism didn’t overwhelm the action, and though the characters were not well developed, the plot moved quickly and audiences connected.    It also had another connection to the other two cultural products – it dealt with reality beneath appearances.    That’s why people connected – it wasn’t a complex cynical analysis of the human condition, it was a straightforward appeal to our basic ideals of freedom and values.

Taken together, what influence did these 1977 works have on my world view?  I guess they reinforce my view that we each have to take responsibility for our lives, recognizing that much of what we strive for and take seriously is temporal and unimportant.   Beauty fades, wealth does not satisfy ones’ spirit, and battles and competitions are quickly forgotten (this obviously connects with my last post on Augustine and Petrarch).   More importantly, there is a purpose.   Life isn’t meaningless.    Just as it was Luke’s fate to confront Darth Vader, I trust that life leads us to where we are meant to be; each of us is actually the captain of our life voyage.  Blaming others only pushes us deeper into delusion.

The final song (save the album coda) on Grand Illusion is Castle Walls by Dennis DeYoung.   I’ve often thought about the Star Wars saga as I listened to these lyrics.    I also suspect the last two lines reflect true wisdom.

Far beyond these castle walls
Where I thought I heard Tiresias say
Life is never what it seems
And every man must meet his destiny

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May the Force Be With You

Star Wars quotes have invaded recent blog entries for a reason.    For the last month the boys have been nearly addicted to the Wii Lego Star Wars game, working through the stories, building Minkits, buying characters, etc.  They know the name of places, characters and battles better than I do.    You know it’s something when your just turned five year old son asks for help on a video game, and you have to say “you know how to play this better than me.”   Luckily, he can turn to his seven year old brother who is an expert for help.

Of course, they also wanted to see the movies, and last weekend Dana (the five year old) had me talking like Obi Wan, while he pretended to be either Anakin or Yoda.  I realized I was losing myself in these fantasies when I talked like Obi Wan to the cashier at the grocery store.  Last night Jon Stewart comes back from his holiday break and wouldn’t you know it — the first bit is a nice comparison of Barack Obama to Luke Skywalker.

Finding myself drawn in, I re-read a book I got over a decade ago called “Empire Building,” by Gary Jenkins, giving the history of the Star Wars effort, and a short bio on George Lucas.   The book was released just before the new trilogy came out, and I was pleased to read that George Lucas said the series was really about Anakin’s redemption.   That was cool since I wrote a blog post titled “Anakin’s Redemption” a couple weeks ago!    It’s pretty remarkable how a film that many at Fox studios thought a waste of money ended up becoming such a cultural icon.

Why has the movie become so iconic?  The conventional wisdom holds that in an era where dark, realistic and psychologically deep (and depressing) films were the norm, Star Wars came forth with optimism and a simple ‘good vs. evil’ message that spoke to the inner child in all of us.   Moreover, it was fun, an escape from reality.  The heroes were likable, the villains were clearly evil, and there wasn’t a lot of complexity.    Obi-Wan and Yoda’s bits of wisdom were short and succinct, patterned after zen phrases rather than complex moral dramas.

Of course, the three ‘prequels’ that came between 1999 and 2005 added more special effects and complexity to the story, as we got to watch Anakin Skywalker slip towards the dark side.   And, at a time when the US was over-reacting to terrorism and President Bush embraced war in defiance of the world community, the story of a Republic morphing into an empire out of contrived fear seemed close to home.   When Anakin says “if you are not with me, then you are my enemy,” and Obi-Wan replies “Only the Sith deal in absolutes,” Lucas provides a very political statement!

But the reason I think Star Wars became the most successful movie of its era may be because of the spiritual world view of the Jedi — “the force.”   George Lucas calls himself a “Buddhist Methodist,” and one can see the mix of Christian and eastern ideals in the Jedi vision of the world.

Consider some of Yoda’s quotes:

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

“Do or do not… there is no try.”

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”

“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”

When Luke skeptically says “I can’t believe it,” Yoda replies “That is why you fail.”

“Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

“You will know (the good side of the force): when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

And my favorite: “Train yourself to let go of the things you fear to lose.”

Or as Obi Wan (Alec Guinness) put it: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Also Obi Wan: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

Back a couple years ago I wrote that I thought we needed a new axial age, a fundamental shifting in how we look at faith, religion and philosophy.  I think Star Wars is so powerful because its moral voice reflects truths which transcend particular religions and world views.  The action and story line is connected by an understated yet dominate moral thread: the force.   There is a good side and a bad side.  The dark side comes from fear, and is associated with hate, death, and anger.  The good side comes from a calm, clear vision, with self-mastery and perspective.    The dark side is confused, doubting, impatient, and discontent.   It is suffering. The light side is confident, patient, and does not over-react.   It is love.   There is a spiritual, psychological and practical wisdom in Lucas’ simple yet elegant “force.”

Without the “force,” Star Wars might have been a hit, but may not have been the world wide blockbuster it became.    It speaks to core values that unite us,  transcending the different religious myths and stories that divide us.  And, of course, the core value of forgiveness is present in how Anakin Skywalker, even after engaging in massive atrocities, such as murdering Jedi children and committing genocide, is redeemed through his sons’ faith that he still had good inside him.

May the force be with you.

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Fear of Uncertainty

“You are either with me, or you are my enemy” – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

“Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” -Obi Wan Kenobi
(From Revenge of the Sith)

Humans let arrogance into their psyche and behaviors all the time, often without knowing or recognizing it.   I know I’ve fallen into that trap many times, but arrogance is the most powerful form of delusion out there.  When one is trapped by arrogance, one sees it as ones’ right or duty to fight forcefully for that which causes the arrogance, believing those who have a different perspective are wrong, even evil and dangerous.

I think a key cause of arrogance is fear.   In politics one of the most dangerous fears is the fear of uncertainty.  People want to be right, they want to believe their cause is right, their ideology is right, and their candidates are right.   Yet most people recognize that the “other side” has good points too, and that even the ideals they hold dear may be based on false information.  That yields humility, which of course is the opposite of arrogance.

Those who fear uncertainty are likely to build fortresses around their belief system, defending it so forcefully, with opponents seen as weak minded, dumb, or disingenuous.    They become believers in absolutes.  You either believe their point, or you are labeled as something negative.   A nihilist, a socialist, anti-human, or simply an idiot.

Another tactic to bolster ones’ belief  is to belittle the other side.   When those supporting the war in Iraq countered anti-war arguments, it often was to say something like “the opponents believe we can talk with Saddam and say ‘you really shouldn’t be so mean,’ and he’ll realize we’re not so bad and become our friend.”   Not those exact words, but the upshot was that those who disagree with war are naive types who don’t understand the ruthless depravity of a Saddam Hussein.   Such a tactic allows them to dismiss the real complexities, and keep the issue simple and absolute.

Of course, the anti-war side had similar tactics.  To say “war is murder and George Bush is a fascist terrorist” is the same sort of response.  Saddam is Hitler, Bush is Hitler, well, you get the point.  If the other side is Hitler, then you know your side is undeniably right.

Those who fear uncertainty also tend towards absolutes in their ideological perspective.  If you accept uncertainty, you realize that most of the time principles are unclear, and subject to contextual change.    Strict and uncompromising religious belief, such as Bin Laden’s or those of the most intense Christian fundamentalists probably reflect a fear of uncertainty.   Nationalists, animal rights extremists, militant environmentalists, and others who take their cause to an uncompromising extreme reflect that fear.   Accepting contextual variation or partial implementation of the principle to them feels like an infection that destroys the ideal.   It opens up the possibility that their belief may be wrong or imprecise, and if they cannot stand uncertainty, that becomes unbearable.  A crack in the edifice of a belief can bring the whole thing down.

That’s why “true believers” as Eric Hoffer called them can bounce from one extreme to another.   David Horowitz went from being a sixties radical to an over the top conservative extremist.  There is comfort in defining principles in absolute terms and then refusing to budge from them, deriding and ridiculing all who think differently.   It creates an illusion of certainty and “correct belief.”   It shields them from confronting their true fear: that they not only may not be right in how they think, but they might never know if they are right or wrong.

I think the key for avoiding this way of thinking is to not only accept and acknowledge uncertainty, but accept as a part of life the possibility that many of our core beliefs may be wrong.   Moreover, that in no way should inhibit us from acting on those beliefs and living our lives based on what we hold true.   One does not need certainty to believe, one does not need certainty to have faith, one does not need certainty to fight for a cause.

Yet those with humility will know how to compromise, know how to accept contextual ambiguity, and learn not to judge those with different perspectives.

Those who fear uncertainty and tend towards absolutes will have absolutist responses to what I just wrote:  “If  you might be wrong in what you know, why don’t you jump off a cliff, you might live!”  Or “if you might be wrong, then maybe Hitler was right, so how can you judge the Nazis?”   But that kind of objection is itself rooted in fear of uncertainty.  I may acknowledge uncertainty, but if I am repulsed by Nazism and experience tells me not to jump off cliffs, I can make that call very easily.   I don’t need to claim absolute certainty in order to make moral judgments or try to convince others to condemn or stop that which I hold to be evil behavior.

Fear is probably the biggest cause of violence, abuse and suffering in the world.  Fear produces hate, anger, and self-loathing.   Fear causes people to put up edifices of rationalization to protect their world view, and justifies violence and repression against others.   Fear’s purpose is to help us survive, we are to fear large animals and dangerous situations.  But in the complex social systems we’ve created, totally divorced from the evolutionary reality that shaped our psyches, it gets warped and twisted.   Overcoming that means accepting uncertainty, as well as the temporal nature of all that we hold dear.   Here Yoda may provide the secret to happiness and contentment:

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” – Yoda (also in Revenge of the Sith)

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Anakin’s Redemption

For the past three weeks my seven year old son has been addicted to Wii Star Wars Lego: the Complete Saga.   The game goes through the main parts of every episode.  Before that, he’d been building Star Wars Lego sets, and watched the films.  His brother, who turns five in a week, has been watching, learning and listening.  He even plays the Wii game, not as good as his brother, but better than his father (me).

On Sunday we made the trek to Portland for the Children’s museum, Christmas lights, and a visit to the bookstore.  There the boys found a book of Star Wars stickers.  As we waited in line to pay, they were going through, talking about the characters, what episode they’re in, as well as analyzing the weapons (different kinds of “walkers,” etc.)   Others in line chuckled, “wow, they’re into Star Wars,” one woman remarked.   I thought I was a Star Wars fan, but I don’t know the cast of characters the way they do.   And even though until recently the four year old still thought Darth Vader went to the “dark side of the forest,” they know the material.

I was thinking about this and a recent discussion on a different blog about the death penalty.  One amazing aspect of the Star Wars story is the ambiguity of the Anakin Skywalker story.   In The Phantom Menace Anakin is a lovable young boy, a slave living with his mom and owned by a junk yard dealer.  He wins his freedom, but must leave his mom behind, a very difficult choice.  He is befriended by Padme Amidala, the young queen of Naboo.   In The Clone Wars, now trained as a Jedi, he falls in love with Padme, and battles his own demons, as he feels distrusted by the Jedi rulers, and angered by injustice.  Finally in Revenge of the Sith he is tempted to the dark side of the force, joins the Emperor, and engages in a mass slaughter, including hundreds of children training to be Jedi.

George Lucas has a brilliant way of pulling us along with Anakin, showing how his tortured feelings, especially after the death of his mother and his visions of Padme, now his pregnant wife, dying in pain haunt him.   In weakness the emperor seduces him to embrace evil, telling him it is for the greater good, and that he can help save his wife’s life.   Yet out of anger he ends up being the one to kill Padme, hitting and weakening her to the point that she would die in childbirth.

Of course, in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the original episodes from the 70s and early 80s (episodes 4, 5, and 6), Anakin has become Darth Vader, the ultimate villain.   To his original war crimes he adds the destruction of an entire planet, torture, and presumably acts of murder and genocide that go beyond any human list of crimes.

The film turns from a rebel group fighting the evil empire to one of Luke Skywalker who, after being trained as a Jedi, learns the terrible fact that Darth Vader is really his father.  He had been told that Anakin Skywalker was killed by Vader.   This creates a similar drama of anger and weakness that Anakin experienced, as Vader tries to seduce Luke to join the dark side.

Luke, however, senses there is still good in his father, even as everyone else is convinced that Anakin has been lost.  In the end Darth Vader, seeing the Emperor ready to kill Luke, turns on the Emperor and saves his son’s life.  He tells Luke that he was right, there was still good in him.   Darth Vader dies, but now he is again Anakin Skywalker.   In a celebration scene we see the spirits of Yoda, Obe-Wan and Anakin together, reunited, as Anakin has rejoined the Jedi.   Luke and his sister Lea (twins born to Padme before she died; Anakin’s children) live to carry on the Jedi tradition.

In the blog discussion I opposed the death penalty, in part because people can change.  A couple of Christians supporting the death penalty made what I thought a rather weak argument – it’s OK for the state to kill because a verse of the Bible says states have the right to wield the sword.  The fact its been proven that the state is sometimes wrong and kills innocents didn’t seem to have an impact, but I also pointed out that it’s possible for hardened criminals at some point to turn their lives around.   Wouldn’t a Christian want life to continue so the soul would have a chance for salvation?  Isn’t that the same argument for opposition to abortion (the Christians arguing with me oppose abortion rights)?

One thing I like about fiction is it’s ability to build a thought experiment and then connect it to emotion in ways that lead us to paradoxical conclusions.  We all learn to love Anakin, hate Vader, and then celebrate his redemption.   Few would stand at the end and say “it’s horrible that Anakin was able to see his son and die happy (and live happy in the afterlife) after all the suffering he caused.”   In this fictional thought experiment, our knowledge of Anakin means we celebrate his redemption, and see his evil as having been caused by fear, hate, and anger — all too human emotions.   We even understand him, and empathize with how he shuts out all emotion when he turns to the dark side.

Clearly, murderers and dangerous felons need to be separated from society.   And most are far from being romantic Jedi knights serving the Galactic Republic.   But perhaps if we looked at everyone as humans acting out of human emotion gone in wild directions in sometimes painful circumstances ranging from child abuse to life stresses beyond what are normally faced, we’d understand and pity the criminal as much as the victim.   Perhaps the self-righteous condemnation of the “perp” and concern for the victim would give way to a more complex set of concerns for all involved.   Perhaps we’d be able to say that the death penalty is wrong — that while we may need to remove this person from everyday society, there still could be a chance he or she could do some good, or choose a different direction.  Perhaps even those close to victims would see that the death of a murderer does no good – it only adds to the tragedy of that death.

To be sure, most probably won’t find their redemption.  They will be more like Emperor Palpatine or Darth Maul, locked in a fog of fear, hate and anger that perpetuates and causes danger.   Many who are guilty of far less serious crimes than murder are likely not going to find a path out of a sad, violent existence.

Still, perhaps we need to see the humanity of all, as painful and ugly as it can be.  The way Lucas made Anakin understandable when he went through his fall was to show him battling with the same emotions we all encounter.   We could all imagine making those same kinds of errors in the right (or wrong) circumstances/moments of weakness.   That realization — that each of us is capable of both the best and the worst behaviors offered by humanity, breeds a sense of humility and compassion.  If we can touch that, we can forgive.   If we can forgive, we can both change and help others change.

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