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‘Star Wars’ and the Redemption of a Dysfunctional Family

Skywalker-Family
Getty Images / Sunset Boulevard

Even in the far-away and technologically superior galaxy of the Star Wars saga, people cherish the simplest and greatest treasure we have: family.

At its core, Star Wars is the epic, intriguing tale of the Skywalker family. No family is perfect, and the Skywalkers certainly face some challenges — they are no strangers to betrayal, anger, and fear. But the Skywalkers also show us how love can heal and lead to hope.

The choices they make between the light and the dark can encourage us in our own struggles with loved ones. The Force may not be strong in our family, but the path we follow when we face conflict can still determine our destiny.

In the prequels, Anakin confronts pain and anxiety that arises out of genuine concern for those whom he loves: his mother, Shmi, and his wife, Padmé. Once in Jedi training, Anakin misses the connection and proximity he had once shared with his mother. As a Padawan, he has to say goodbye to her and enter a predominantly male-driven culture. Is it possible that breaking up his connection with his mother — the foundational relationship of his life — started him off on the wrong foot with his Jedi training?

Parents have a fundamental calling to love their children. In showing them genuine love, they also reveal how to love other people. The loss of Shmi leaves Anakin without a foundation of love, so his search for that love drives his decisions. Because he has not been properly and frequently shown how to love, the young Jedi turns to rather warped alternatives, including vengeance and breaking the moral codes of his own order.

In Episodes IV, V, and VI, we meet Luke Skywalker. His journey is like our own: he’s in the springtime of life and has a restless heart. He seeks an adventure, a change from the monotony of daily chores and unchanging desert scenery.

As his adventure develops, Luke must confront the deeper questions concerning who he is. In the course of his journey, he discovers himself to be one who does not abandon his friends, one who is eager to learn, and one who wishes to dedicate himself fully to the discipline of becoming a Jedi. It’s a journey that is complicated by the revelation that Darth Vader is his father.

Vader has been living in the dark for most of his life, letting it coil tighter and tighter around his heart. Nevertheless, Luke tries to get through to his father’s broken spirit. Miraculously, when it comes to choosing between his son and the evil dictator he has followed for several decades, Vader takes the side of his own son. Luke’s willingness to be vulnerable breaks through to Vader and melts one of the hardest of hearts. Even if it’s for only a few moments, Vader becomes Anakin again.

Many of us know what it feels like to live in a dysfunctional family — we understand all too well what it’s like to be in a dispute with a parent, or to experience distance and separation from a family member. Star Wars simply puts those dynamics on the screen for us to observe — when Luke learns Vader is his father, we see his betrayal turn into fear and anger and distrust. That pain and distance rules their relationship until they are able to set aside violence and embrace a different way of thinking — one that is not afraid to suffer.

For so long, Vader and Luke are locked in the mindset that they are enemies, not father and son. When Luke’s suffering touches Vader, he returns to the ideals of his youth — he returns to the boy who didn’t like bullies, who saw beauty and virtue in the people around him. He is redeemed and becomes once again someone who cares deeply for his family. That connection — the love of family — is the only thing that breaks through his armor and touches his heart. It saves him.

Vader’s conversion shows the fruits of hope. It shows us that broken bridges can be rebuilt, that love can be rekindled, that no darkness is stronger than a willingness to reach for what is good. The resolved relationship between Anakin and Luke shows us that healing is possible. Injuries between family members can be reconciled — we can return to genuine love and a better understanding of one another.

As we move into Episodes VII, VII, and IX, yet again the story revolves around a protagonist, Rey, struggling with knowing her family’s background. She’s driven by a great desire to be reunited with them, which is the same longing that disturbs Kylo Ren.

Though he was born Ben Solo, Kylo has disowned his family, taken on a new name, and has begun walking down a path of darkness. It’s a conflicted journey, but he persists. His personality disposes him to rash action and stubbornness that has little room for mercy.

When egos and the desire for quick results are the dominating forces at work in family disagreements, nothing is going to be resolved. For reconciliation to happen, everyone has to be willing to listen and understand the other’s standpoint. When Han Solo and Kylo confront one another, Han is willing to help his son, but Kylo makes no genuine attempt at knowing his father again. Unlike Anakin, Kylo is unable to respond to the vulnerability his family extends. He rejects the opportunity for reconciliation, which would have led to redemption — and he kills Han.

Yet, in doing this, Kylo finds only more anguish and suffering. Perhaps regret begins to flood his heart as well. He also has a heart starved of love, and it drives him to more distress and rage. Like Anakin, Kylo is struggling to discover and accept who he is, and he lashes out against even those whom he loves.

Doesn’t this happen in regular families? Not the lightsaber part — I’m talking about miscommunication and estrangement. We don’t have to live in a galaxy far, far away to know this pain — there is unnecessary strife in all of our families. Disagreements cause distance. Tempers flare. Arguments get out of hand. And no one wants to relent, which means no one wants to understand the other.

It’s not easy to offer or reach for or accept reconciliation, but as we see in the Star Wars saga, it could be the most defining choice we make. Like Anakin and Luke and Han and Ben, we are all searching for who we are. Or, perhaps more precisely, we are trying to answer the question, to whom do we belong?

The principle of healthy family life is love, a virtue presented realistically within the Star Wars universe. When love is present, it restores and heals. It brings people together because it is willing to endure suffering, to reach out beyond pain to seek reconciliation. It saves us.

At 900 years old, Yoda certainly knows a lot, but he is wrong about one thing: the energy that surrounds and binds us is not the Force — it is love.

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