We are what we grow beyond: The enduring lesson of The Last Jedi

I’m not going to tell you why The Last Jedi is a great movie and a great Star Wars movie. (Patrick Willems already did it better than I ever could.) I am going to tell you about one scene in the movie, though, that never fails to turn me into a sobbing mess. It’s after Luke fully admits his failure to Rey and she leaves him alone on the island. In his shame, he has put on his ceremonial Jedi robes to go burn down the tree that contains the sacred Jedi texts. Yoda is waiting for him and when Luke can’t bring himself to do what he intended, Yoda summons a lightning storm to destroy the tree himself.

Luke believes that the time for the Jedi has come to an end but Yoda has one final lesson for him:

Heeded my words, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.

Yoda then joins Luke to look upon the burning tree with these final words.

Luke, we are what we grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.

This scene wrecked me in the theaters and continues to affect me every time I watch it.

Star Wars, like so many mythological hero’s journey stories, is about the choices we make on the way to adulthood. Will we stay on the farm and choose a life of comfort and certainty or will we take a risk and go on an adventure that will transform us? A sad truth is that many of us choose to retreat into comfort, self-doubt, and distraction rather than take that risk. Maybe we claim bad luck or circumstance but we have to accept that more of us are Uncle Owen while thinking we’re Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi is more about the choices we make in adulthood. Rey is figuring things out, yes, but Kylo Ren has already made his choices and doubles down on them despite having an opportunity to choose a different path. Luke has lived a lifetime as a legend and a hero, yet lives in isolation and regret after a failure and not living up to the unrealistic expectations that had grown around him. The story also establishes that his generation represents one that meant well but, like the Jedi of old, got complacent and looked away in arrogant denial as evil once again took hold in the galaxy. It’s true in myth and in life that our heroes often become villains, either by choice or circumstance. The dark side is always easier and the easiest choice is often a selfish one.

Luke ultimately decides to re-enter the fight and inspire the galaxy out of its complacency and into action (let’s pretend The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t exist for now), speaking to the power of redemption and the light, as a good Star Wars story does. Its power and resonance of that choice comes from that this isn’t something I see a lot of in life. I see more Kylo Ren’s who double down on their choices than Luke’s who choose to rise above.

When I first saw The Last Jedi, I was at a point in my life where I had suffered some personal disappointments and professional setbacks. The world also looked like it was in a dark place and still does in many ways. I don’t think any of those challenges were more than what anyone else goes through but they were the baggage I brought with me. I also recognized the parallels with our own intergenerational fights in our politics, and the questions around our very real heroes who tend to disappoint us as they remind us they are either all too human or monstrous at worst.

The movie burrowed itself in me and was like a fine meal I returned to again and again in my mind. That scene with Yoda was the one I kept returning to though. That and the throne room fight that made me yell, “wow,” in the theater but I digress. I saw the movie two more times in the theater and, “we are what we grow beyond,” was cemented in my emotional core. I would drop it randomly in conversations and say it to myself whenever I thought I needed to hear it.

We let ourselves be imprisoned by our choices and we let them guide our present and future to our detriment more often than we’d like. It’s always easy to look for an enemy, to wallow in self-pity, or to decide you are powerless and take solace in selfish pursuits. Are you Kylo Ren or are you Luke Skywalker? Be honest.

We should acknowledge our failures and disappointments, whether we know that’s what they were at the time, and learn how to use them to evolve as people because that’s what you do as an adult. It’s our dragon in the cave and dragons are always selfishly hoarding a boon that could help us, and others, in our journey. We’re not going to stop making mistakes, suffer setbacks, and being imperfect people but we can reflect or seek help so we can grow from them. The Jedi made mistakes, Luke failed his nephew, but burning the past and being selfish was not the answer. Learning, growing, and selflessness was.

The galaxy needed Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi again to inspire us, not save us. We have to do that for ourselves. It is the harder path to take. That path of the light, like life, is never easy.

I don’t know why Rian Johnson chose to pass on this lesson or even if that was his conscious intention. He was just taking the themes that had existed in Star Wars from the start to their logical next step. I’m just grateful he had something to say that connected with me.

Star Was was designed to entertain while redressing the moral lessons that have been around for thousands of years. Its basis in common, cross-cultural, mythological principles is the biggest reason for its success. Stories like this resonate with us because we like to be reminded about being that kid who dreamed, and of the adult who sometimes just needs to be reminded that it’s never too late.

The movie reminds us that our heroes–and ourselves–can still be who we want them to be.

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