Fear and the Force
November 23, 2011 Leave a comment
Fear is profoundly powerful. It’s supposed to be–it’s a survival mechanism. How ironic is it, though, that fear does just as much to destroy us as it does to preserve us.
Think of the destruction wrought upon by one human upon another, by one people upon another, all because of fear. Economies collapse because fear takes hold. Individuals drive themselves to malady and madness, consumed by fear. And yet, despite the harm that results when fear dominates, we continue to promote it and propagate it. It’s like a monster that we’re afraid of, that we hope doesn’t consume us. So, we feed it, which strengthens it, which causes us to become more afraid of it, which causes the cycle to repeat.
What is even more saddening is that we know we shouldn’t give into fear. How many inspirational quotations are on posters hanging in offices and living rooms that urge us to let go of our fear?
“The only thing to fear is fear itself.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
“There is a time to take counsel of your fears, and there is a time to never listen to any fear.” (Gen. George S. Patton)
“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” (Betrand Russell)
“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” (Nelson Mandela)
“Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. ” (Yoda)
I mention the quote from Yoda last because I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from The Empire Strikes Back, and the lesson comes from one of Yoda’s lesser-known lines. When Yoda reveals his identity to Luke, he says, “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.”
The Empire Strikes Back is probably the darkest and most philosophical installment of the original trilogy. Luke, his friends and the Rebellion are besieged, pursued and facing uncertainty. Contrasted against this difficult plight, as the philosophy of the Force is explained, it provides not only a glimmer of hope, but an anchor point that reassures us that, so long as we hold true to the tenets of the Light Side of the Force, fear, adversity and evil can be overcome.
Luke’s problem is the same that so many of us face today: he is afraid. We are afraid. We don’t know it, but, deep down inside, we are, and that fear is unleashed at the worst times in our lives and at considerable cost to ourselves and those around us. Luke’s inability to concentrate on the present leads his focus to drift elsewhere–to the future, to excitement, to adventure, and this inability to focus on the here and now is rooted in his fear. Recall how in the original Star Wars: A New Hope Luke was obsessed with getting away from the family farm and feared being stuck there while his friends were off pursuing their dreams. However, when Obi Wan presents him with the opportunity to leave his home and, in the process, help the Rebellion, all Luke becomes afraid of the opportunity and fears what his uncle would think.
Yoda rebukes Luke for his impatience and lack of self-control. “Control! Control! You must learn control!” He admonishes Luke. Yet, despite the wisdom and guidance Yoda provides, Luke continues to hold on to his self-defeating thoughts and tendencies. Not only is he impatient, afraid and lacking self-control, but he also lacks faith (he doesn’t believe he can lift his X-Wing out of the swamp), he does not commit to the possible (his use of the word “try”), and he is plagued by mistrust (he continually second-guesses Yoda’s teaching, despite his unshakable faith in Obi-Wan, who himself said that Yoda was far greater).
No matter how sad and frustrating it is to see Luke’s difficulty in overcoming his weaknesses, we empathize with Luke because we each know what it is like to fall down and to experience difficulty getting up. Luke vulnerability doesn’t just stem from him and his friends facing peril, but also from his shedding of the outer self that he has always known. True to what Yoda says, though Luke is training to become a Jedi, he will be tempted by the Dark Side, which promises strength by embracing everything that the Light Side is not. The Dark Side is fearful, impatient, selfish,angry, unsettled, and hateful.
Herein is where I return to the concept of fear. The two sides of the Force outline different ways for dealing with fear. The Light Side overcomes fear through the attainment of inner peace. Self-control through the awareness and mastery of one’s thoughts and emotions allows a Jedi to deal with fear. Strength comes from peace, patience, understanding and self-control.
On the other hand, the Dark Side has no interest in overcoming fear. Rather, it surrenders to fear, which leads to anger, hate and suffering. It mistakenly believes that fear, anger and hate are empowering, when, in actuality, being dominated by fear is the complete opposite of power because one no longer is in control of oneself.
This being mastered by fear is at the root of so many problems today, whether it’s chaos in the stock market, political oppression, or unrest in the workplace, the home or within. While the tools to overcome fear are readily known–patience, awareness, trust, focus–they are left unused by people who think they are unable to wield them or who abdicate personal responsibility and leave it to “those who are stronger.” Yet, how did great leaders become great leaders and how did “the stronger” become stronger? Have we not all faced hardship? Do we not all have weaknesses? Is it not the case that we are all human?
The Jedi, and those who have self-awareness and self-control are not any less human or any less weak or any stronger than anyone else. The difference is that they are not mastered by fear, they are not fazed by the unknown and they have the patience to focus on only what they can affect and be at peace with everything else. The goal for us mortals doesn’t have to be the complete attainment of an impossible ideal (though I would contend that self-mastery is not impossible) but, at the very least, we should continue to progress towards being more in control of our thoughts and emotions.
Yes, fear is a powerful emotion, and we can never be completely rid of it, but we don’t have to be. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability to not be mastered by it.