At four years old, I saw Star Wars in the theater – I can still remember the opening scene – the massive Star Destroyer chasing Leia’s ship. I can trace nearly all my love for space to that moment. When it was revealed in “Empire” that Vader was Luke’s father, I was so devastated I tried to wish it away. Luke was my hero – the hero. All through my childhood and teen years, it was an established fact – bordering on a right of passage – that Luke was the dominant hero figure. I still remember being so disappointed that Leia told Han “I love you”. And then – to make matters worse – finding out that Leia was Luke’s sister! Wasn’t the hero supposed to get the girl, too?
Then something happened. I grew up. The safe & insulated world of my teens disappeared amidst the emotional tsunamis of divorce, college & moving away. The endless optimism and hope I had for the future began to be tempered by real experience. Luke started to sound a little whiny. I found myself more sympathetic to Han. Sure, he was rough around the edges, but likable. He flew a fast ship, knew how to come through in a pinch, understood loyalty, took care of his own and I could appreciate that.
Then something else happened. I experienced deep heartache over someone I dated in college. I graduated, toured regionally with some bands and scraped by on peanut butter sandwiches and the free employee lunch at Macaroni Grill. I discovered I hated always playing other people’s music and never having time for my own. I decided to switch careers. As a melancholy artistic type suddenly thrust into the heart of corporate America, I was unprepared for the backstabbers. The white collar backstabbers weren’t anything like the blue collar backstabbers of my warehouse college jobs – they were a vicious breed apart. I had to grow a thicker skin, think on my feet, learn how to get cussed out in front of others while staying calm – all the while trying to better my skills so that finding a new job would be a reality and not just a wish. I was married. I had kids. Things like self-defense turned into home and family defense. I had to ask myself – in the unlikely event of someone breaking in or attacking my family – would I be willing to use deadly force. I was surprised not only at the answer, but the depths from which it resounded a loud “YES. I WOULD NOT HESITATE.” Images of Mel Gibson from the Patriot come to mind.
I wasn’t just sympathizing with Han, now. Here’s a guy that improvised everything. Even the ‘fast ship’ of his – without which he would never have met Ben and Luke, gotten connected to the Rebellion and ultimately redeemed himself – had been won in a game with best “frenemy” Lando. Simple chance. And let’s not kid ourselves – he wasn’t just rough around the edges. He could take cold, calculated risks to get out of danger. Don’t believe your eyes on the re-released versions of Star Wars. In the original, Greedo never got a shot off. Han shot him cold, all the while trying to look relaxed and stall for time as he unsnapped his holster to take the shot.
I would have taken that shot, too, and I find that unsettling. Life is wonderful and full of so many incredible gifts – but it can also be darker than the darkest dark. No human being emerges from the dark unchanged. Archetypes like Han Solo, and Maximus Decimus Meridius from “Gladiator” resonate with men because we often have so much in common with them. Improvising, and trying to look calm while we’re wondering if the hyper drive is actually going to work the next time we fire it up. We have an emotional depth we don’t always know how to communicate, so we’re left telling the woman who just said “I love you” a simple “I know.” In the case of Maximus, we feel betrayed by existing power structures and we overwhelmingly react with passion to the moment of his greatest discovery – who he truly is.
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
This was an identity forged & discovered through tremendous hardship & loss. Are there any other truer revealers of who we are?
There’s something about anti-hero redemption as well. As much as I loved “Back to the Future” as a kid, I sheepishly admit that most of my childhood was spent feeling like this guy at this moment:
George has no idea he can knock Biff out. He acted more out of courage and principle than he ever had up to that moment. He goes from “peeping Tom” to true rescuer, and his timeline is forever altered for the better. Han learns there are better things to fight and live for – and goes as far as being willing to die for them. Joseph Donnelly reaches the moment of his dream and shouts “This land is mine! Mine by destiny!” and all the hardship that passed before pales in comparison.
That’s what these anti-heros’ redemptions really offer – hope that you don’t have to let the darkness turn you into a cynical has-been.
Edward F. Mooney writes, “Job gets the wonder of a world returned, but he does not learn why he suffered.” That can seem unfair, but the answer is a good one: “The reception of a life beyond dust and ashes throws the need for an answer aside”. I don’t want to stop at just not being a cynical has-been. I want move on to the reception of a life beyond dust and ashes…