I think I probably watched the original Star Wars movies about 30 times when I was a kid. Given that, you’d think I’d have given the Star Wars philosophy some serious thought and in some ways I did, but there were also things that I just accepted without really considering them. Take Yoda’s famous instruction to Luke: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Is that really good advice? Does it help? I only realized a few weeks ago (37 years later) that I don’t really think so. Yoda just sounds wise saying it, in his muppety way.
Of course that line was actually written by George Lucas (or more likely the screenwriters, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan), but I was fooled by the narrative structure. Yoda was a 900 year old Jedi master and Luke had just demonstrated the foolishness of underestimating him based on his muppetyness, so I fell right into the trap of believing that what he was saying must be a profound truth because it sounded like one. And then he calmly raised Luke’s x-wing out of the swamp, so clearly he was right, right? Somehow I just glossed over it, but after all the trying and failing I’ve done through the years, I realize that I actually don’t agree.
It’s even at odds with one of my other favorite quotes, so I’m a little surprised it took me this long to notice. I had a wonderful English teacher who was a very dramatic, eccentric woman, and somewhat ahead of her time. She once had us put our desks in a circle and lunged around the center reciting sections of Dante’s Inferno at us in Latin like some kind of incantation. On our first day of class, she put a series of quotes up on the board, one of which was by Samuel Beckett from “Worstword Ho”:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If Yoda was saying that succeeding at challenging tasks requires a combination of commitment, faith, and focus that would be one thing. His idiosyncratic syntax may be clouding the issue, but it seems like he’s saying there’s no value in trying and failing, and that success depends on believing absolutely that you’re going to succeed. How many things would never have been discovered or accomplished if that were true? I’m imagining a philosophical debate where muppet Thomas Edison pops up to say “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” and muppet James Baldwin backs Yoda up with “those who say it cannot be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”
After Yoda has raised the ship from the Dagobah swamp, Luke says, “I don’t believe it!” and Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.” I think if you truly believe in your heart of hearts that you can’t do something, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it’s not the only reason for failure, and people often surprise themselves by succeeding where they thought they wouldn’t. We also learn so much about ourselves and what does and doesn’t work through failing. Sometimes the thing we achieve isn’t at all what we set out to do, so much so that failure is one of the central mechanisms of scientific experimentation. It makes me think of Kambei in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, who is able to help the villagers defend their town against bandits by applying all of the things he’s learned from being on the losing side of every battle he’s fought. He doesn’t expect to win, but he tries because it’s the right thing to do and he’s the one who’s willing to do it.
I think I never thought about that phrase too hard because what I took out of it wasn’t actually the words that Yoda used. I read Yoda as a Zen master, and I thought he was saying that it was fully possible for Luke to raise the ship but his monkey mind was getting in the way by telling him it was impossible, and he couldn’t get past that to focus and actually do it. In the context of Yoda’s argument with Obi Wan that he can’t teach Luke because he’s never got his mind on what he’s doing, that makes sense. You have to focus completely to use the Force, which means letting go of your feelings and all of the stories you’re telling yourself about what you’re doing and whether it’s going to work. All of that is a distraction, and that causes failure. But there’s a problem with the exact words, “Do or do not, there is no try.” One option is that Yoda’s saying that if you’re not 100% sure you’re going to succeed then you should never try, which seems like bad advice. The other is that there’s a loop: if you actually attempt the thing but in the end you do not, rather than do, then what you did was try. No amount of commitment or faith can guarantee success because there are always unknown variables and the possibility of error. In fact, I think you could argue that all we ever do is try with varying degrees of success.
All this has started me thinking about quotes from other characters that I had accepted as wisdom to see if there’s more I’ve overlooked. The next one that came to mind was Gandalf from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which is one that I do still think is good advice, especially in our current times:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
alex MacFadyen is still trying to decide what to do with the time that has been given him.