Monday, January 21, 2013

One With the Force

My mother died on January 3, 2013.

Having always suffered from asthma, it was eventually pneumonia that settled into her lungs and killed her. The real culprit was mental illness, which she struggled with at least throughout my lifetime, if not the entirety of hers. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia a decade or so ago and finally institutionalized the last few years of her life.

There is a lot to be said concerning schizophrenia and the dark side. The most overt example in that long ago, far away galaxy is from the season four finale of The Clone Wars, in which the Sith Lord Darth Maul makes his anticipated return. Not only has he been physically cut in half, but his mind has been severed as well. Show-runner Dave Filoni even referred to his condition in one of the Blu-Ray commentaries as “schizophrenia.”

In 1911, the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coined the term schizophrenia, from the Greek words “schizein” meaning “splitting,” and “phren” meaning “mind.” It is quite literally a split mind, a psyche fragmented and dissociated from the rest of the world. It manifests as a kind of cognitive schism, with the sufferer on one side of the abyss, and reality lingering a fair distance away.

Which pretty much sums up Darth Maul, ranting and raving hysterically at the bottom of a pit, which is where his brother Savage Opress finds him. Lending voice to the psychosis, Sam Witwer noted on the Forcecast that this was a visible manifestation of what the Sith were all the time, although usually hidden below the surface. Witwer referred to the dark side as “fear and greed, and madness and despair,” which describes mental illness adequately enough. 

Maul had fallen down a hole, created a fictional reality, and then couldn’t get out again. It usually takes on a less literal form in real life, but the symbolism is on the mark.

As Alan Watts once said, “the lunatic is the most isolated person in the world.” Indeed, one of the tragedies of mental illness is the isolation caused when all the connection and communication with the outside world is severed, with the sufferer barricading themselves behind a wall no one can reach. 

There really isn’t anything quite as gut wrenching than someone being alive, yet as shut out and unreachable as though they were dead. This is what the dark side does too, as Obi-Wan Kenobi found out on the lava drenched world of Mustafar, when he lost an unreasoning Anakin Skywalker to the shadows of the dark.

Even with something like depression, this preoccupation with one’s self is overwhelming, as though no one else in the universe existed at all. This is not unlike the obsessive selfishness of the Sith, though of course not in the way of being morally bad and needing to be punished. This is a selfishness that makes life a veritable hell. 

The holistic way of the Jedi is selflessness, in the sense of an open and sane communion with the rest of life, of a recognition of that symbiont circle which binds everything together. There is no hardened self obstructing one’s view of everyone else. The Jedi are selfless, in some sense one with the galaxy. The Sith are selfish, in that they feel themselves so separate and isolated and disconnected from the galaxy that their only response is to conquer and rule it.

While schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder, it is worth noting the collective psyche of the Sith is often so shattered more than one personality is born from it, usually sporting a “darth” in front of it. And all of them are so selfish they refuse to die, because then they can’t cling to anything anymore. Their refusal to yield to the natural cycle of one generation dying so the next can be born is perhaps the most obvious form of their madness.

Joseph Campbell once said that perhaps death is the seminal theme of mythology. Maybe it is the most seminal theme in Star Wars. Certainly the character’s differing responses to it speaks volumes about them. Obi-Wan’s sly smile to Darth Vader in the face of it was both sagely and eloquent, as well as Yoda’s serene acceptance on his deathbed. 

As the Dalai Lama himself likes to point out, much of religion and philosophy is simply learning how to smile in the face of the Void. This of course lies in stark contrast to the Sith’s greedy refusal to accept that life and death are part of a greater whole, twin brothers along the same continuum.

Ironically, modern mythologies like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the like are the only places that death is honestly confronted in this culture. At my mother’s funeral, this was plainly obvious. It is striking how painfully ill-equipped to deal with death this society is – much the same can be said for mental illness, too. 

Not only was the funeral home as staged as a television studio, in one room was my mother’s casket, while in the other people were discussing traffic and what someone’s hair looked like as well as other banalities. Not to mention none of them were around expressing concern or support when she was alive and desperately needed it. Just another bit of that cultural schizophrenia we’re all indoctrinated into accepting as normal, that deep-seated belief that if we all pretend something isn't happening, then it isn't.

While Campbell talked of the big themes as birth and death, George Lucas told Bill Moyers in an interview that he also liked to include our relationship with our parents. 

Mine hasn’t been particularly pleasant, with even a substantial part of the good memories fading into the ether, lost to psychosis and disconnect. I personally gave up on my emotionally and often physically nowhere father years ago during my mother’s institutionalization, which was actually a profoundly positive thing to do. It is worth noting here he never even remotely understood Star Wars.

My mother I of course lost to suffering and madness, try as I did to cope with the situation. It occurs to me now that I’ve actually been grieving and mourning her for years, only without hope of resolution or closure. For the longest time I seemed to be the only member of the family who would even acknowledge what was going on or that she needed help. 

For her part, she always did seem to enjoy Star Wars. We went to all six movies together, particularly A New Hope, over and over again. She bought me a lot of action figures, and even secured an AT-AT Walker for me when it was almost bigger than I was. Most impressive, she even read a George Lucas biography to forge a bit of connection with me, something rather amazing for our family.

At the end of it all, pretty much every Star Wars-loving child raised in traumatic home situations all crave a Return of the Jedi-style reconciliation with their parents, at least deep down. Who doesn’t want to crack open that hard shell separating them from having a deep, meaningful relationship with their mother or father? Who wouldn’t want to have their parents look at them with their “own eyes” and finally see clarity and connection and total understanding reflected there?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the best we can do is simply throw our lightsabers down just as Luke Skywalker did, and refuse to perpetuate the destructive patterns we were born into. The dramas come in many destructive forms, be they drugs or alcoholism, abuse or insanity. Some would argue madness isn’t much of a choice, but I personally remember consciously and deliberately making one for myself a long time ago not to go there. The highest functioning person I’m not, but I’m also not crazy.

So we always learn from our parents, even if we don’t follow their path. Or perhaps particularly if we don’t.

The Roman poet Ovid noted in Metamorphosis that “Be sure nothing perishes in the whole universe, it does but vary and change form.” This neatly dovetails into Yoda’s speech in Revenge of the Sith, when he proclaims there is no need to mourn or miss those who “transform into the Force.” A little stoic perhaps, but a rather startling thing happened to me the day after my mother was buried which faintly echoes it.

While standing in line at Wendys before a therapist’s appointment about all this, I was ushered ahead by three nice, kindly-looking little old ladies. “Don’t worry,” one told me, “We’ll pretend you’re my son.” 

Shocked, I turned around and looked straight into her eyes. They just smiled back, sane and whole. After telling her my mother’s funeral had been the following day, she even gave me a warm hug. Hard to believe the will of the Force wasn’t flowing that afternoon.

So goodbye, mom. We both did our best. Thanks for all those viewings of A New Hope at the dollar show, they were greatly enjoyed.

Sorry you won’t get to see the next trilogy. Or who knows, maybe you will. 



  1. I am so sorry for your loss. Truly.

    Having Asperger's Sundrome, and working with/knowing people who have the whole alphabet of neurological disorders (including schizophrenia), I can grasp more than most the pain of those suffering from it and the people who care for them. Tac on being a Star Wars fan, I can also more than most relate tothe fear of falling to that "dark side" and what it truly means. I fear the void and losing myself more than anything in this universe.

    I can offer no words of comfort that won't ring hollow, except perhaps that my heart goes out to you. And perhaps I'll be one of the first to pre-order that book of yours when I know the release date.

    May the Force Be With You, Always.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, sir. They are appreciated as always. I continue to enjoy your posts/thoughts as well. I worked with someone for awhile who had Asperger'S, and can only guess how difficult that must be to deal with on a daily basis. I don't fear falling to the dark side personally, but it is so heartbreaking when those we care about do. As GL would no doubt say, it is a tragedy not only for those around them, but for their own selves as well. That's one part of the saga that a lot of people don't get. MTFBWY too.

  2. Sorry for your loss.

    Excellent post. One thing that is true is that the lack of connection with the spiritual word in today's society is perhaps the reason why so many ignore death. And yes, it's very annoying how funerals have turned into a social convention.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I do agree that the loss of any kind of real spiritual depth is at the heart of why so many people can only deal with the Great Matter in the most trivial of ways. Still, we all do the best we can, a fact that I'm learning to accept more with each passing year. MFBWY.

  3. Again, sorry for your loss. I can't even fathom how hard it must have been. Years ago I temped with a girl who told me about her husband's best friend, a young man who went from being merely eccentric to paranoid schizophrenic. It was also quite an eye-opening education about how hard it can be to get help for these people. The guy ended up leaving town and living on the streets, drifting from place to place. He cut everyone out of his life and all his mother could do was track his whereabouts through the police. Sad.

    Not to sound like the Long Island Medium but sometimes the departed send signs in unexpected ways.

    1. Again, thank you. That is a really tragic tale. I can't even fathom how hard that must have been. Amazing that my mother was living on her own until a few years ago, albeit close to family and stuff. The education I received about getting help for her was also been eye-opening, and in the worst way. It is such a tricky situation. At the end, they pretty much have to have all their rights taken away from them, one by one. I couldn't even so much as get any of her doctors to talk to me when it would get really bad. They literally operated behind locked doors. I wonder if some of them do take to the streets to preserve their fractured autonomy. That is yet another aspect of our society that I would desperately like to change. Everyone is so ill-prepared to deal with it, even the psychiatric community, it's sometimes hard to believe. The bureaucracy is about as bad as what Amidala had to face with the Senate.

      And yes, the universe can have a curious way of working.

  4. Hey Paul, I'm very sorry to hear about your mom's passing, and just as sorry to hear about the pain (her's, yours, and your families') of her final years. This piece honored her in a powerful and elegant've written a lot of brilliant stuff on TSWH, but this was the most honest, direct, and true. Though my parents are both still alive, I've had to deal with similar issues in my family, and I empathize. Getting to the point where you "throw the lightsaber down" is torturous, but there's no denying how much lighter and stronger you feel when you just let go of it all.

    1. Thank you for your kind sentiments, Eddie. I am glad to know this piece resonated. I had my doubts about it, but people have really responded. "Throwing the lightsaber down" is liberating, but it does take a lot of drama and trauma to get there, I agree. Hope things with your family unfold better than with mine.