I think it’s safe to say that most of us do not have to worry about whether we will be able to successfully complete Jedi training, learn to maneuver an X-wing well enough to take on a tie fighter, or wonder whether we have the fortitude to face a villain as cold-blooded as Kylo Ren. But there is a way that the challenges in our own life may mirror those faced by our Star Wars heroes, especially in the way we perceive them.
I was somewhat shocked to speak to someone that was disappointed that Star Wars: The Force Awakens ended on a cliffhanger, as this person was somehow unaware that more films are coming down the pipeline. Well, I’m not sure what Tatooine rock he’s been living under, but Star Wars movies comes in threes. Trilogies, people. Just like Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, The Hunger Games and any number of other sci-fi/fantasies. And the narrative arc that plays out over the course of trilogies has been mapped out for hundreds or thousands of years, going back at least to the time of ancient Greece.
Oftentimes, the narrative arc of a trilogy adheres to the timeless three act structure outlined by Aristotle and added too by critics and writers through the years. Stated simply, the first act (or in this case, film) sees the hero drawn into the conflict and begin to confront his or her problem. In the second act, the problem worsens as the hero or heroine has to expand their arsenal of skills as the problem is perceived to be worse than previously thought and oftentimes tragedy may strike. The third act sees the hero or heroine successfully apply their new skills, solve the problem and ride off into the sunset.
Those who have seen The Force Awakens already know how this applies to Rey (though we won’t discuss it here, as we’re still in the *NO SPOILERS* window). But we see it obviously with the original Trilogy, as Luke meets Obi-Wan and experiences the deaths of his uncle and aunt before blowing up the Death Star. However, the problems widen in The Empire Strikes Back, as Luke begins his training, though he loses his arm in a conflict with Darth Vader, who is also revealed to be his father. In addition, his cohort Han Solo ends the film frozen in carbonite and shipped to the clutches of Jabba the Hutt.
I believe that we often see our own lives (and problems) in a similar structure, though this realization may be subconscious. Through speaking about and thinking about our lives, we tell ourselves a sort of story, choosing facts that fit our current narrative.
Often, when clients first come to my office for therapy, they feel like they are “at the end of the road” with nothing else to do. It may be common to feel like the movie of your life has come to an end, but I often suggest (through means subtle or overt) that they are in the first act or movie of their trilogy. These clients may find themselves drawn into a problem by a new set of circumstances that they have not previously faced. For example, people may be shocked by the death of a close family member or the revelation that a spouse or partner is cheating. A common phenomenon that may occur in psychotherapy is that the problem may appear to get worse before it gets better. This is likely due to the person confronting the situation and examining the emotion, which in turn may produce more challenges and emotions as the new landscape of their life becomes apparent. I suggest that this is analogous to the second film of their trilogy, as the client is receiving “training” through therapy in how to deal with and process these emotions.
Consider this structure with a problem you are confronting in your own life. Have you just begun to face this matter or are you “practicing” and developing skills that will help you vanquish the challenge? Or perhaps consider a past difficulty in your life. What skills did you bring to the table to help you get through the challenge? How did you learn the skills and how can you apply them to future problems?
Millions of us will be seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the next few days. And millions of us have expectations so high nothing short of the greatest movie ever will meet them. Seeing the film has become nothing short of the secular equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca. I predict that some will come away disappointed, voicing complaints like “it wasn’t as good as the old ones.”
I won’t be one of them.
I saw Star Wars in the theater in 1977, when it was first released. As far as I remember, it was the first PG-rated movie I saw; it was certainly my first non “kid” movie. To say I was completely blown away is an understatement. My grandfather (now deceased over 30 years) took me to the film, and even told my parents how good it was, prompting a later family outing. It was, perhaps, my most memorable cinematic experience. Certainly, it was a milestone in my young life.
So, yeah, The Force Awakens won’t be replicating that experience. How could it? I’m not a wide-eyed young kid and my grandfather has been gone for years. I will go into the film expecting it to be really good, and I’m certainly expecting it to be better than the prequels. That said, I enjoyed the prequels more than many, largely by adopting a similarly reasonable set of expectations. I was happy to see the words scroll by at the beginning, hear the whoosh of light sabers, and savor the first breath of Darth Vader.
I often see clients in my psychotherapy practice falling into a similar expectations trap in their own lives. Christmas and the holidays have to be every bit as good as childhood memories, or sometimes even better. Sometimes parents may wish to undo bad childhood experiences or prevent their own children from having a bad memory. This is an example, in my opinion, of falling into a life narrative that may prove challenging or problematic. Oftentimes, when expectations are sky high, disappointment results. The holidays (and accompanying expectations) may be a challenge, too, when family members have passed away. Especially the first year after their passing, the remaining family may work hard to overcompensate for the loss of the absence of beloved family members.
So how do we break out of this problematic narrative?
Something that has been successful for some families is to concentrate on new traditions or doing things differently. If Christmas has always been at one person’s home, perhaps it is time to try a new location this year. Activities are good, too. Never played White Elephant? Maybe this is the year to try it. There is nothing like laughing to help us break through a challenge and create new stories and memories for the years to come. Or maybe another new tradition: a flag football game or a board game. Maybe change up the dinner menu. Have you always had turkey or ham? I hear tamales are great!
Maybe we should all take a similar approach to The Force Awakens, too. It won’t be the same as it was 30+ years ago when you saw the original trilogy. Movies have changed. You’re 30+ years older. And there wasn’t incredible 3-D technology available then, so that experience alone will be different for many. But, most importantly, don’t try to make it the same. We’ve all moved on—enjoy your life NOW.
May The Force Be With You.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture