Trust the Force (All of It): Lessons in Balance from ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’

Tatooine, aka purgatory.

Lucasfilm’s new Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries is resonant and insightful in all the ways I wanted it to be—as well as a few I didn’t expect. For those of us who enjoy the saga primarily as pop mythology, it offers up a character study in true Star Wars fashion: packed with planet-sized metaphors that act as mirrors guiding our Very Tired Hero on his long journey inward. Like all good myths, the story is best understood as a personal struggle projected onto a grand, vivid dreamscape. Each antagonist is a part of Obi-Wan in disguise; the key to defeating them is to recognize himself in them (Vader most of all).

Set ten years after Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan is a husk of the man he once was, traumatized by the loss of everything he once dedicated his life to—from the Republic and the Jedi Order to his apprentice Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One prophesied to bring balance to the Force. Surprise! Anakin decided to unbalance it first. Or is he merely the symptom of a long, chronic imbalance that nobody noticed until it was too late? Hey … what the heck does “the balance of the Force” even mean, anyway? Equal light and dark? No dark; only light?

This has long been a subject of debate in Star Wars fan circles, but it also strikes me as a pertinent question to pose in the midst of this hyper-polarized moment in Western culture. As exhausted as we all are by dualism—us vs. them, red vs. blue, the righteous vs. the heretics—relativism seems poor medicine when faced with so many wrongs that need righting, so many evils that desperately need to be named and brought to light. So I was moved to see Obi-Wan Kenobi address the mystery of balance as a central question written into its hero’s journey—the puzzle Kenobi must solve (or at least align a few more pieces of) in order to rediscover his path forward. What happens when, in our valiant efforts to be “good”, we ignore our inner darkness? What happens when we linger too long in that same pain, to the point where we can no longer see the world relationally—only through the filter of our own compressed self?

I absolutely love where the series lands in its attempts to address these questions, and I’m going to do my best to unpack why.

Spoiler Alert: Qui-Gon Was Right

I can’t help interpreting stories through the lens of whatever I’m fixated on at the moment, and since March 2020, that’s mostly fallen under a single heading: disorder. As part of a personal effort to cope with the chaos occurring both globally and locally, I’ve been reading, writing, and thinking rather exhaustively about closed versus open systems—entropy and entaxy—in nature, psychology, religion … you name it. Why? Well, it seems to me that human beings are quite stuck on this idea that order is always a good thing, when the universe in fact routinely dismantles old systems to make room for new, increasingly complex ones. The dance between these two forces—destruction and creation—ensures that our world is never stagnant, and never starved of fresh possibility.

In Star Wars terms, I like to think of entropy and entaxy as the dark and light sides of the Force: one primarily dismantles, while the other builds. Marie-Claire Gould of the wonderful podcast What the Force? (which you should definitely give a listen if you enjoy thinking about Star Wars from a meta and mythic perspective) points out a related metaphor in the background of Obi-Wan Kenobi: mining versus farming.

Fearless Leia, punking stormtroopers since age ten.

When he arrives on the planet Mapuzo to hide out with a ten-year-old Leia, Obi-Wan reminisces that it was once full of “fields and families,” but the Empire has now stripped it bare of resources. This is symbolic of entropy, or the dark side of the Force, operating out of balance. There’s nothing inherently evil about mining, of course, but mining practiced without moderation—destroying the delicate ecosystems that make the land valuable to begin with—is unsustainable, and leads to unnecessary suffering. Meanwhile, Leia identifies herself and Kenobi as “farmers from Tawl” when hitching a ride into town, and Owen and Beru Lars, young Luke’s caretakers, are moisture farmers on Tatooine. As people who work in partnership with the land to grow something new, farmers echo the process of entaxy. Cosmologist Julian Barbour (author of The Janus Point, a book I can’t shut up about) also calls entaxy the creation measure: a fundamental principle that weaves order and structure out of chaos in the cosmos. Entaxy is why we live in a universe of forms rather than formlessness. This is the light side of the Force at work. But, wait! Even farming can go too far if it stresses available resources. The land needs time to rest between periods of production. It cannot always be creating.

You see where I’m going with this: Both sides of the Force are needed for balance, but either side used in isolation poses a problem. Too much disorder and the world falls apart; too much order, and there’s no room to create something new. When entropy and entaxy are acting in partnership, however, we get evolution. Growth. Change. New forms and new levels of complexity constantly emerging from the ashes of the old. The Force becomes a spiral instead of a circle. It’s going somewhere.

What if this very partnership between the two sides of the Force is what Qui-Gon (that wonderful rogue Jedi mystic) was referring to when he invoked “the Living Force”? A unified dynamic that actively transforms the world from moment to moment, rather than a divided one that either unravels or crystallizes the world, depending on which side is dominant?

What might that same kind of balance look like inside of a person? This is the question Obi-Wan faces. And when he finally answers it, Qui-Gon appears. Because, I humbly submit: There is no other question.

Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Quest for Balance

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Obi-Wan is a character most familiar with the light side of the Force, not the dark. When Leia asks him what the Force is like in Part III, he compares it to turning on a light—a feeling of safety that drives out fear. This understanding strikes me as beautiful but one-sided, just as the Jedi’s traditional teachings are. It doesn’t acknowledge the very necessary role that darkness plays in the world, as well: death, disintegration, and loss, which may be frightening but without which new life cannot emerge. As Rilke intimates in one of my favorite poems, God lives and moves in shadows as much as sunlight.

At the beginning of the series, we learn that Obi-Wan has cut himself off from the Force. This is a haunting shorthand for trauma, which tends to sever our connections, both to ourselves and others. But I wonder if Kenobi hasn’t also acquiesced to this Forceless existence because he knows that in his current emotional state, he can’t access the light side—and like the good Jedi he is, he refuses to touch the dark. Trapped inside his despair, the only feelings he has to left to draw on are fear, guilt, anger, and loneliness. Without confronting this inner darkness, however, he cannot move forward.

Growing as individuals requires facing and integrating the parts of ourselves we would rather not see. One of the most damning statements George Lucas’s prequel trilogy makes about the Jedi is that their pious refusal to acknowledge the dark within themselves—their collective shadow—blinded them to Palpatine’s rise to power, as well as Anakin’s impending fall. As Jung writes, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Ten years after the events of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan is still carrying the burden of the Jedi’s failure to do exactly that. Thankfully, he is destined to journey toward a more holistic understanding of the Force—and of himself.

Trauma as a Closed System (The Illusion of Order)

Stuck in a loop.

When we meet Ben in Part I, his life is a circle. By day, he works at a meat processing station across the Dune Sea; by night, in dreams, he relives the horror of what happened with Anakin on Mustafar. The way Deborah Chow directs these scenes does a magnificent job of driving home the soul-crushing sameness of life inside the loop. On a plot level, of course, Ben lives this way to protect Luke (and himself) from the Empire. But on a symbolic level, this is simply what unprocessed trauma feels like: Nothing changes. Everything repeats.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that in an isolated system, entropy can only increase. (Cue the Muse track!) In nature, a system must remain open to receive a steady influx of life-giving energy from its environment; without these links, it is doomed to die. But when we’ve suffered a traumatic event, we tend to unconsciously reject any situation that would make us vulnerable again. We close down emotionally; we shut others out. Although this protective impulse can be helpful in the immediate aftermath of the event—when we’re reeling and need space to process what’s happened—if we continue to refuse contact with the outside world for too long, we ironically only ensure that chaos will increase in our lives. Having dropped all of his active relationships (even to the Force), Kenobi’s very sense of self is eroding.

Somebody else we know is stuck in a similarly closed state: Vader.

Didn’t expect to get the best portrayal of Darth Vader in the entire saga embedded within a Disney+ series, but I ain’t complaining.

In Star Wars terms, Vader is the ultimate example of what it looks like to reject change. When he left to join the Jedi as a boy in The Phantom Menace, his mother Shmi warned him: “You can’t stop change. Any more than you can stop the suns from setting.” But Anakin has always been afraid of loss. After Shmi is killed by Sand People in Attack of the Clones, he declares his intent to become so powerful that he will even learn how to “stop people from dying.” A vision of Padmé’s death in childbirth—and a bit of bad advice from dastardly old Sheev—send Anakin running to the dark side in pursuit of that power. What’s harrowing about Anakin’s quest against entropy is the fact that he gets exactly what he wants in the end: a deathless, changeless state. And the only side of the Force he can still use is the same side that took from him what he wanted to keep.

One of the smartest things Obi-Wan Kenobi does is draw a direct line of comparison between its hero and Star Wars‘ biggest villain. Instead of treating Obi-Wan as a paragon of virtue, the show instead uses Vader to highlight the faultlines in Kenobi post-Order 66. Writers Joby Harold, Andrew Stanton, Hannah Friedman, et al smartly capitalize on something we’ve long known about Obi-Wan—the fact that he adopts the name “Ben” when he goes into hiding on Tatooine—to make the link between his own fractured spirit and Anakin/Vader explicit.

Shadow-boxing on a grand scale.

When Ben is recognized by a fellow former Jedi named Nari out in the Dune Sea, he insists that Obi-Wan no longer exists, just as Vader insists that Anakin is dead. “Ben” may be Obi-Wan’s way of hiding from the Empire, but it’s also a convenient way to hide from himself. After all, it was Obi-Wan’s apprentice who turned to the dark side, Obi-Wan who failed his friends and allies in their greatest hour of need. Just how deeply Ben has buried his true self becomes apparent when Bail Organa calls on him to rescue a ten-year-old Leia. Looking every inch the failure he feels himself to be, Ben remembers what happened the last time he tried to help and says: “Find someone else. She’ll be better off.”

But there is no one else. And by opting out of conflict, Ben is not actually helping himself or others—a fact that gets driven home when he finds Nari hanging from an arch in the town square. Again, this is the great irony of the closed system. We think we are protecting people by keeping them at arm’s length, but the more pronounced our isolation, the more gets thrown out of balance.

Vader is a symbol of what Kenobi, too, might become if he remains trapped in the circle of his despair. During their first battle in the series, Obi-Wan is on the defense, running away from what Vader represents and defending himself against it. In the course of their second battle, however, Kenobi quite literally unmasks his shadow and speaks with it. He looks Vader in the eye and instead of destroying him, Kenobi apologizes.

Kenobi is Vader’s shadow, too. Some people repress good qualities in themselves

This scene is effectively constructed as a callback to the famous moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke enters the dark side cave on Dagobah and “kills” Vader, only to see his own face beneath the helmet. Unlike Luke, Obi-Wan recognizes how he and Vader are alike before dealing a fatal blow. He acknowledges the broken and guilty part of himself he sees mirrored in Anakin’s scarred face, and realizes that if he cannot learn to accept all that has happened—if he sacrifices himself at the altar of changelessness in an effort to avoid further loss, as Anakin has—then Vader’s “living death” might be his fate one day, too.

Vulnerability as an Open System (The Cost of Freedom)

Staying open hurts. It also saves.

If escalating disorder is the ultimate consequence of our lives remaining closed systems, then Little Leia is the vibrant new energy source that kickstarts entaxy in Obi-Wan’s life. Through his relationship with Leia—which he at first resists because he fears it will make him vulnerable again—the Force begins stitching something new out of the past. She is a piece of Anakin; she’s inherited the best of him, as Obi-Wan tells her in Part VI. And her entrance into his life beautifully echoes the fact that Anakin’s own circle of suffering will one day be ended by Luke.

But Luke and Leia aren’t just symbols of the goodness that Anakin has abandoned in himself; in this story, they also serve as mirrors for another key character who’s trapped in a trauma loop: Reva, the Third Sister.

Reva fascinates me in part because she is a direct consequence of Anakin’s pursuit of order. As a child during Order 66, she witnessed “the only family [she’d] ever known” slaughtered by a freshly-turned Lord Vader. She was then forced to become his servant as one of the Empire’s fearsome Inquisitors: Jedi hunters tasked with exterminating the remaining Force-sensitives in the galaxy. Midway through the show, we learn that Reva has submitted to this fate only so she has a shot at one day getting close enough to Vader to kill him, thereby exacting revenge for her Jedi brothers and sisters.

Reva, girl, you’re projecting. Big time.

In her quest to avenge her child-self, however, Reva merely ends up inflicting the same harm she suffered onto others. In this sense, she embodies the adage (popularized by the inimitable Richard Rohr): “If you do not transform your pain, you will always transmit it.” She is herself a living example of pain transmitted (Anakin’s passed on to her), which she continues to pay forward to her victims.

This impulse gets challenged, however, when she interrogates Leia, in whom it’s all too easy for Reva to see herself as a child. Having captured the young princess to draw out Kenobi, Reva’s goal—finding the location of the Path base for Vader—gets muddled in a game of projection. “The people you’re trying to protect, they are not coming for you,” she tells Leia. “The only person that can save you now is you.” In these words, we hear Reva’s own wounds and justifications, her anger over her abandonment by the Jedi and her conviction that the Sith way of self-reliance is now the only path to absolution—because nobody else can be trusted.

Although Reva successfully identifies and speaks with her lost child-self in Leia, she does not yet see her enemy in herself. When she fails to kill Darth Vader during a long-awaited confrontation (after which he leaves her to die, yet again—and Reva survives, yet again), she learns one of Anakin’s children is in hiding on Tatooine. What better revenge than to take his family from him, just as Reva’s was stolen from her? She can’t yet see that by harming Luke, she would merely be harming herself, continuing the same cycle of suffering that that left her on the floor of the Jedi Temple, and yet again on the floor of the hangar on Jabiim.

Reva is an inversion of Obi-Wan in the sense that she refuses to access not her darkness but her goodness. To rescue the person she once was—the person she has betrayed—she needs to turn inward, toward the source of all her projections. She resists this for the same reason that Obi-Wan resists being drawn out of hiding on Tatooine: because it would make her vulnerable. Reva and Kenobi are two lost souls thrown out of balance in different ways, but the solution to what ails them is the same: Remember who you are before you become what you hate.

Reva wakes up.

When faced with the opportunity to strike down Luke in the Tatooine desert, Reva can no longer ignore the perfect parallels between what she suffered as a youngling and what she’s about to do to another innocent. Even after sparing Luke, however, Reva is tormented by the idea that this was an act of weakness on her part—that she has failed her family yet again. Having emerged from his own gauntlet moments earlier, Kenobi is in a position to tell her the truth: “By showing mercy, you have given them peace. You have honored them.”

Then he helps her to her feet and says: “Now you are free. We both are.”

Open systems.

Freedom is a power exclusive to those who embrace risk. The more links a system has in nature, the more choices it has at its disposal—even as it expands its level of exposure to potential dangers. The closed self that chooses isolation doesn’t have the luxury of possibility, because possibility requires connection, a posture of openness. Since Reva has inherited Anakin’s pain, she struggles with the same thing Vader does: the idea that empathy and compassion are weaknesses, doomed to bring more suffering. But as an audience, we see how much strength it takes for Reva to choose mercy. In doing so, she proves herself (and Anakin) wrong. Being an open system is the hardest thing in the world. It’s also the only thing that restores our own agency to us.

The cost of freedom is vulnerability.

By learning to see themselves in the rubble of Order 66, Obi-Wan and Reva are given the opportunity to reshape those same ruins—to forge a path forward, rather than retracing circles. This is the Living Force at work, and they are invited to partner with it. Knowing that this potential for reorder and evolution lies at the heart of even dark times can help us lose our fear of loss, too. It’s certainly something that reassures me when I’m faced with the Herculean task of staying open.

“Only when the eyes are closed can you truly see,” reads the Path mantra written on the walls of the Mapuzo base. There are dozens of ways to understand this, but here’s how I do: When you close your eyes it’s because you trust the universe, fundamentally. You’re no longer afraid of it. And that’s where Obi-Wan gets by the end of this show. He can trust the Force again (all of it), because he’s glimpsed what balance looks like. He can close his eyes and sleep, as Leia so wisely suggests. And, of course, he can finally see Qui-Gon, who stops just shy of saying I told you so.

Look, Qui-Gon wasn’t perfect, but he was the first one of these nerds to become a Force Ghost so—he was right about something.

I’m a firm believer that stories, too, evolve over time depending on what you bring to them (age, baggage, the latest crisis of the day) because the good ones are built to accumulate meaning, not just deliver a static message. Obi-Wan Kenobi pulls off the difficult feat of enriching Star Wars as a whole—all 45 years of it—while speaking directly to my present moment. Balance isn’t comfortable or easy, it reminds me. Balance is learning to live with tension, with darkness, with your own failures and with other people’s. It’s learning to live with risk so you can be open to new possibilities. It’s learning to practice empathy so you can see yourself in the eyes of even your enemies. All of these things take immense courage. Balance isn’t for wimps.

But if we practice cultivating it—if we resist the impulse to either cling too tightly to old orders, or burn down the world in our frustration—we might just learn how to trust change in the process. And man, how would that feel? How would it feel to actually trust that the light will always weave something new out of the dark, because that’s how this whole mystery operates? That the dark in partnership with the light, night and day forever giving way to each other, is nothing to fear?

I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that’s how we define faith, come to think of it: trust.

Even when the world is falling apart—especially then—a new hope is being born. Always.

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