Hello There: Obi-Wan, Trauma, and Resilience

Obi-Wan Kenobi can now be watched in its entirety on Disney+. While it is wonderful to witness Ewan McGregor effortlessly slip back into Obi-Wan’s robes the show also allows for reflection on the impermanence of trauma and the power of resilience. I fear the phrase “impermanence of trauma” may have struck some readers as either cold or unrealistic. I often fear we live at a time when trauma is commonly believed to be an unconquerable force. Therefore, we fail to encourage psychological sturdiness and resilience. Noam Shpancer, professor of psychology at Otterbein University, reminds us, “There is brokenness to every life. Yet making trauma someone’s defining feature reduces them to their injury….a trauma centered narrative itself may make moving on from trauma difficult” (1)

Facing Failure

Obi-Wan’s trauma is linked to his failures. And, yes, failure is real. One piece of bumper sticker wisdom  I loath is the idea that failures aren’t real, they are just opportunities in disguise. While this thought is uplifting it creates a bypass, a way to avoid addressing the psychological, emotional, and spiritual pain of a failure by rushing to find the opportunity. Conversely, one must avoid relentlessly wallowing in the darkness of a failure for this creates stagnation, not strength. Before we delve into Obi-Wan’s fictional tale let’s pause for a real life example of facing failure.

In the 1984 NBA Finals Magic Johnson failed in the clutch. He made a bad pass in the final minute of game four that was stolen by Robert Parish. He also missed two crucial free-throws in overtime. The Lakers lost game four. They also lost game two for a variety of reasons, not least among them was Magic dribbling out the clock in regulation, preventing the Lakers from taking a shot to win at the end of regulation. Celtic fans took to taunting Magic by calling him “Tragic Johnson” the remainder of the series. 

The Celtics won the 1984 championship and Magic, by his own admission, felt responsible. He failed to make plays in clutch situations. He failed to make a good pass. He failed to make free throws. He also, to the Celtics dismay, recognized that failing at a task (making free throws in the clutch) does not make an individual a failure at their core. You can fail and not be a failure. Such an important lesson. Magic could never win the 1984 finals again, he failed to do that and the opportunity to win a championship that year was indeed gone. He could, however, come back with a vengeance and create the opportunity to win the championship in 1985…which he did (2). He stood in his failure and took what action he could to transcend it.

 I fear that when we diminish the reality of failure we also diminish the reality of resilience. I write that with a sense of dread for I am a teacher and schools seek to teach students resilience while attempting, on a regular basis, to erase failure. Dear American educational system, you can’t have the light without the darkness. 

Obi-Wan’s Failure and Trauma

As Obi-Wan Kenobi opens our protagonist is burdened by the weight of his failures and trauma. Professor Shpancer warns that there is  danger to “…assigning the trauma label to any upsetting, angering, challenging, or disappointing experience. Stretching the trauma label to cover generic life challenges…amounts to a form of emotional grade inflation, diluting the meaning of the term” (3). Magic Johnson, for example, failed to make plays in the 1984 NBA Finals. That, according to Shpancer, is not trauma. A powerful and public failure to be sure, but not trauma. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, can rightfully be viewed as traumatized. 

Let’s look at his ledger. He engaged in a brutal lightsaber duel against Darth Maul alongside his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn. Maul was defeated but Qui-Gon was killed while Obi-Wan was momentarily sidelined behind a laser shield. If only Obi-Wan was faster perhaps Qui-Gon would have survived. As Qui-Gon dies he secures a promise from Obi-Wan to train young Anakin Skywalker. This, as all Star Wars fans know, does not end well. Anakin rejected his teacher, turning to the dark side and becoming Darth Vader. When Order 66 was issued Vader storms a Jedi temple and massacres younglings just learning the ways of the Force. Obi-Wan tracks down his former apprentice and defeats him in combat. In the course of the fight he dismembers a young man whom he had great affection for, leaving Vader for dead as flames engulfed his body. This was no victory as the old republic, which Obi-Wan swore to protect, was falling into ruin as Revenge of the Sith ends with the Empire ascending. 

To recap, Obi-Wan watched his mentor die, had a beloved padawan succumb to the dark side and “killed” him even as the galaxy fell into chaos because the republic he swore to protect was crumbling. Damn. I’m having a good day. How about you?

The Power (Force?) of Erik Erikson’s Theory

“There is brokenness to every life.” No one, as Dr. Shpancer points out, is free of struggle and pain in life. The renowned psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994), in his theory of psychosocial development, illuminated how strengths and weaknesses became ingrained as part of an individual’s character. He also warned that strengths would also be tested by life. “The strength acquired at any stage is tested by the necessity to transcend it in such a way that the individual can take chances in the next stage [of life/development] with what was most vulnerably precious in the previous one” (4). In short, you will develop strengths and life will provide gut punches to test its sustainability. Erikson cautions us that, in adulthood, a symptom of dread and fear overwhelming an individual would be that person falling into a state of isolation – which is where we find Obi-Wan at the onset of the series. The isolation is not only from others, but from himself. This self isolation is on display in both his hermit lifestyle (social isolation) and his disconnect from the Force (isolation from self). 

His personal disconnect also manifests in his mission as a silent guardian watching over Luke Skywalker. While he does perform this duty it is with a passionless, robotic disconnect. He performs this duty (watching over Luke) but does not even keep himself “fit” enough (Force attuned) to be of profound service if a serious threat should arise. This disconnect is also revealed in his ineffective but desperate attempts to connect to Qui-Gon’s Force ghost.

Erikson taught that, if one fell into isolating habits between the ages of 18-40, another debilitating trait could develop. As life keeps rolling on, the isolated 40 year old may develop a sense of stagnation between the ages of 40-65, thus losing interest in growth and service to others. Obi-Wan does not appear to be walking a terribly healthy or heroic path when we are reacquainted with him.

Habits of the Mind

Stephen C. Hayes, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Nevada, stresses that healing means to become whole again and that the process can take time (5). Time, however, does not heal wounds alone. Time merely grants us the time to heal. According to Hayes part of the healing process includes embracing a sense of purpose. That’s a strike against Obi-Wan. He is fulfilling a duty by watching over Luke but the sense of purpose is lacking. Pain, Hayes teaches, without purpose becomes a meaningless struggle.

The capacity to reach out to others is also imperative in Hayes’ teachings about healing. The mind can utilize “needless defenses” to help avoid pain. This, unfortunately, has the side effect of hindering healing. By isolating himself Obi-Wan is not only nurturing destructive habits that lead to stagnation, he is also failing to utilize one of his greatest strengths.

Obi-Wan’s Greatest Strength

Obi-Wan Kenobi has always been, if nothing else, a man of great compassion. His care is balanced between individuals around him and the vast, intergalactic struggles which are part of his life. While a master of the Force and a skilled warrior, Obi-Wan’s compassion is what keeps him going from adventure to adventure without succumbing to the immense pressure of his various missions.

 Compassion, according to Dr. Robert Brooks and Dr. Sam Goldstein, enhances resilience by fortifying human connections while also nurturing the belief that we can make a positive difference (6). Obi-Wan is not only a Jedi Master, but a master of compassion…or at least he was before the Republic collapsed. His beliefs have been shaken to their core.  He is driven by a sense of duty but it is not connected to his overarching sense of compassion, hence he becomes a disconnected husk of his former self, incapable of connecting with the people around him or through the Force. In fact, he has effectively cut himself off from the Force almost completely. His ability to access the power now a memory like that of an aging athlete who recalls what he or she could once do but…those days are done. If not for the abduction of young Princess Leia we do not know when, or if, he would have been freed from his atrophy.

His quest to rescue Princess Leia, however, reignited the dying embers of compassion. He struggles to use the Force to save her as she falls from a building, but at least some vestige of the connection remains. His capacity to care slowly extends to others he encounters until, eventually, he reconnects with the Force itself. His capacity to reengage with the Force, however, does not impress Darth Vader. Vader, as he feels victory in their final confrontation is within his grasp, gloats, “Your strength has returned, but the weakness remains.”

Weakness is one of the many conditions of living. Darth Vader always failed to grasp this truth. If the force can have a dark side why wouldn’t weaknesses accompany our strengths? Everything has a shadow. The shadow gains strength through repression, not acceptance. Obi-Wan, when buried by Vader, taps into his emotions (Trust your feelings, Luke). His compassion for Leia and Luke ignite an exponential growth in his connection to the Force. Vader is defeated by the resurgent Jedi. Shpancer would not be surprised as he writes, “…acknowledging and building our strengths improves our ability to deal with our areas of weakness” (7). Weakness exists but it need not overwhelm us, Darth.

Whole Again

As Obi-Wan Kenobi draws to a close Obi-Wan engages in two interactions that resonate his return to wholeness. For clarity’s sake when I say “wholeness” I am reflecting the words of Dr. Brooks, “A life that is not balanced or authentic is ripe for discontent, shallow relationships, and stress…(8). It is important to note, Dr. Brooks is not saying life won’t have hardships. He is not pollyannaish. What he is pointing out is that an authentic person will experience challenges with equilibrium and loyal allies.

Obi-Wan’s authenticity is expressed in a confession to Owen Lars, who had asserted Luke needed to be a child. The mature Jedi validates the wisdom of the farmer. Obi-Wan’s fractured mind led to an obsession with duty that blinded him to Owen’s insight. Humility, and the strength it provides, has returned to Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan’s dismissal of self-sabotaging mindsets also allows him to reconnect with  Qui-Gon Jinn’s Force ghost. As the show ends the two walk into the future at a leisurely pace.

It is important to note that, according to Erik Erikson, if adults between the ages of 40-65 don’t succumb to stagnation they develop a sense of generativity. When teaching Erikson to my students I tell them generativity is the ability to feel generous across the generations. To feel a sense of responsibility to both the generation ahead and behind us. To plow what road we can to make the next generations path just a little easier while honoring the past generation by implementing their best lessons and helping them rest easy as life comes to an end. Care and compassion are inextricably linked to generativity and, evidently, to the Force as well.  

Endnotes

(1) Dr. Shpancer’s thoughts can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 32

(2) As a lifelong Celtic fan giving credit to Magic Johnson for fighting back after the 1984 finals was painful. Don’t get me started on the beathing Kareem gave the Celtics in 1985. Ouch.

(3) May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 32.

(4) Erikson, Childhood and Society, Page 263.

(5) May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 38

(6) This power of compassion is highlighted on page 16 of The Power of Resilience (2004) written by Dr. Robert Brooks and Dr. Sam Goldstein.

(7) May/June 2022 issue of Psychology Today. Page 32.

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