'The Force Awakens' and the Power of Choice

Over 100 JAKKS BIG-FIGS Stormtrooper action figures are seen as a part of an installation at The Americana at Brand for the o
Over 100 JAKKS BIG-FIGS Stormtrooper action figures are seen as a part of an installation at The Americana at Brand for the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, in Glendale, Calif. The new BIG-FIGS Stormtroopers, inspired by the latest Star Wars movie, are available now at all major retailers. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision for JAKKS/AP Images)

Warning: Major plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens ahead.

"One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; [but] in the choices one makes...and [those] are ultimately our responsibility." -- Eleanor Roosevelt

My husband and I just saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We are the generation that fell in love with Star Wars (1977). Movies in the 1970's were either musicals, like Grease (1978), or films exploring the dark side of humanity in flawed families and institutions, like The Godfather (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979). In these latter films, who is good and who is bad is difficult to judge, and the categories end exploded, without reconstruction, anyway.

So, when John Williams' big orchestral opening of Star Wars sounded, my generation sat up straight. This was different. This was epic. The good and the bad seemed clear -- though that changed as we came to know Darth Vader. We did not know Dutch, so we did not know that vader means "father," and we did not "get" the clue to the end that was in the beginning, as is always true in epic: that the hero has to return for the story to end.

The Force Awakens begins the story of the grandchildren. Luke, Leia and Han are parents who did their part to stop the evil of their time. The grandparents, like Darth Vader, are dead, but their grandchildren (who do not have or reject last names, patrimony, and who seem abandoned) all yearn for something that they cannot name.

Young Kylo Ren, who is Ben Solo, symbolizes that yearning in keeping his grandfather's, Darth Vader's, battered mask and in his own mask. His mask is not one he needs, as Vader did, to live, but it symbolizes some depth connection, beyond mere kinship, that will be explored as the series continues, I am sure, but that, I suspect, involves, positively, belonging and, negatively, power.

The parents could not end, ultimately, evil. No human being or generation can. What we can do, as J. R. R. Tolkien understood, is to face with courage the challenges of our time and to choose.

When Kylo Ren took off his mask, all I could think, being of his parents' generation and seeing his young face was, "Oh, baby..." I wished that Queen Amidala and, particularly, Darth Vader, having journeyed through disillusion, dismemberment, and death and back to being Anakin, had lived to guide him. He needs what Toni Morrison calls an ancestor: a benevolent, instructive elder to help form him as a human being through a gentler use of power.

I think there is a reason that the Jedi end up as monastic exiles: power -- the Force -- is volatile. Power is power; the effect of it is in force, in how we choose to use power, particularly in interactions with the "other." Kylo Ren, chooses isolation, to kill his father, who reaches out, dying, to touch the face of his child -- not his enemy.

French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas refocused us on the choice the human face presents. The face of the "other" (the neighbor, the stranger, and even the beloved) daily presents us with choice: to destroy or to yield, to violate or to love.

The importance of the face is signaled by Ben/Ren who kills, but also by Finn, who goes from being a faceless number to having a face and who awakens the force positively: by choosing not to slaughter. His "NO" signals the human capacity to act otherwise than the normative power of his day. He walks towards community, going to Rey's rescue, even if she does not really need him -- for that, anyway.

For my generation, the appearance of the older folk drew us into this film. It was good to see Han and Leia reunite in love and in battle one last time. But, there was one old one I did not know, Lor San Tekka. His name -- lord, saint -- signals one, like Darth Vader, who has passed through power to renunciation and to awakening. Perhaps he is an ancestor these grandchildren seek, one who will return in another form -- for the Force, rightly used, transforms -- to teach.

Star Wars, opening with that great sound, calls us into what J. R. R. Tolkien called a heterocosm, an other world, completely unlike, yet, not unlike our own. Such worlds highlight one element of what it means to be human and to exercise our free will: choice. Conformity is easy; choosing otherwise is difficult and, often, costly. Choosing otherwise risks those we love and risks the self such that we may find, as Paul Tillich called it, "the courage to be," even in the most desperate circumstances.

Rey's choice at the end of The Force Awakens -- to hand over the Light Saber to the elder Luke without demand -- is the acknowledgement of the face that rightly awakens the Force. Perhaps she has found an ancestor, not her parent, who can teach her, not the way of force, the assertion of self over "other," but of the Force, the transformative energy that is in the choice of interdependence and that can make us whole.