All I need to know in life I learned from Star Wars…
Okay, not strictly speaking true, although the various Star Wars properties are serving to remind me of many important lessons I’ve picked up along the way many of which, to my mind, are those most important to pass along to my children.
I’ve tried to delve into different parts of the universe, the illustrative characters ranging from Ezra Bridger to Vader, the books from Obi-Wan & Anakin to those featuring the original trinity.
I find myself returning for the third time (and no walking carpets have torn my arms from my sockets to make it happen), however, to Kanan Jarrus (featured, for those following or catching up, in both part two and part six).
As a reader, I’m bummed that there’s only one issue left in Kanan: The Last Padawan (though I’m grateful it was extended to twelve from the originally intended five). Good news: Rebels has already been renewed for a third season, and I don’t see the journey ending anytime soon, so there are many more journeys on which we’ll be accompanying the Ghost and her crew.
I think anyone who’s been following Kanan in print will agree, however, there’s something very special about this glimpse into the past of one of the few Jedi to survive the execution of Order 66 and about the character himself who, by all rights, should have ended up a depressed hermit on some crappy border world or in thrall to the Sith.
The penultimate issue of the comic shows us the exact moment Kanan Jarrus, then Caleb Dume (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, don’t look at me like that, I don’t make the news, I just report it), makes the decision neither of those things is going to happen. An intense and powerful moment in the short life of a kid already scarred by pain and war who chooses between what feels right and what is right.
We all have defining moments in our lives. Sometimes we remember them clearly. Sometimes they’re blurred by time or shrouded in the ever-evolving sense of self. Many of those moments are ones in which we know we did what was right even if there were consequences. Whatever those consequences were, if you’re here, you survived and you know you’re the stronger for it.
Teaching kids to do what is right is a challenge. It isn’t always easy. It isn’t always fun. It can be painful. It can make you, and them, an outsider, an outcast. It can mean they get teased or even punched for defending another kid or voicing an unpopular opinion. It can mean being mocked for taking a stand. Watching, cold, from the outside as everyone else sits around the warm fire of acceptance.
It’s still right.
Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development explains that children learn right from wrong in stages: young children have no inhibitions whatsoever. Their developing brains and lack of experience make it impossible for them to judge right from wrong and that’s as it should be; they’re focused entirely on having their most basic needs met in order to survive. As they grow and experience, children will do what’s right first because they want to avoid negative consequences and then because they get something they want if they go along with what’s general considered to be proper behavior.
In adolescence, people take an additional step in their moral development, doing what is conventionally seen as correct because the social contract says they’ll be included and accepted if they do so. Because that bonfire on a cold night in the middle of the woods, it feels pretty good. “Conventional Morality,” or the final step for the majority of adults, is a “Law and Order” orientation, an outgrowth of the social-contract stage: people do what is conventionally considered to be “right” by the larger society so that society as a whole remains on an even keel (we don’t usually deliver fatal sword blows for verbal insults, for example. Usually). This is the first stage at which the human mind has the ability to consider others in the equation of moral decision making though it is, to a large extent, still focused on keeping oneself safe and part of the clan.
There is a third stage of moral development, one few people ever achieve not because they can’t (though some, Kohlberg posits, simply aren’t capable) but because it’s less comfortable. It pushes us past societal expectations, to the fringes from the center, causes us to stand out and not always in a way that’s entirely positive. Acquiring Post-Conventional Morality, an individual comes to understand that not everyone has the same sense of right and wrong and that laws are, in fact, nothing more than an arbitrary social contract between members of the majority; people at this stage of development often disobey rules/laws if they find those laws butting up against their personal morality and will work to have those laws changed. The ultimate morality, a sub-stage Kohlberg called the “Universal Ethics Orientation,” requires true empathy, the ability to visualize all points of view. The mechanism used to choose between right and wrong in Universal Ethics Orientation is entirely internal; reward and punishment don’t factor in. Period. End of story. You do what’s right even if you lose something huge. Even if it hurts. Even if it means you have to live with guilt or regret.
In the comic Kanan is an adolescent. Generally speaking, adolescents don’t function at the third stage of morality at all, let alone the Universal Ethics Orientation nor would we expect them to. Generally speaking, their minds simply aren’t ready. Adolescents are selfish and they’re emotional and that’s good and right (and also annoying as hell) because that’s what human brains need to do in order to form an independent being. Kanan has every right to be selfish and emotional. He’s young for a padawan to begin with (remember, Obi-Wan, Mace, and Yoda were hesitant to promote him not because of lack of skill but because of his age) and not only has he chosen to bear that responsibility, he’s done so in a war zone. He has been traumatized, seriously injured, and now, his friend is laying dead in his arms.
Most adults would go Dark Side in those circumstances. Many, throughout the mythology, have.
Deepa Bilaba took the time to teach him right from wrong not because she’s never touched the Dark Side but because she has. Because, while he’s young and untested, he has an inherent ability to ask the right questions, to always know when to ask why. Because her high expectations of herself mean she will do Kanan the favor, the honor, of holding him to those same expectations. She trusts him to meet them the way any other padawan, any other Knight, and other Master would.
And he does.
Perhaps if Obi-Wan and the Council had showed Anakin the same respect, it would have been a very different galaxy far, far away.
I used to assistant teach Indonesian Kung Fu to three- and four-year-olds. Yes, you read that right. Three- and four-year-olds. Was there more play involved than there was with the older kids and adults? Sure. They were three- and four-year-olds. Did we expect them to be able to follow sparring rules? No, we did not. That would have been unreasonable. Did we teach them self-defense holds and expect them to be able to demonstrate a new one every couple of weeks? Yes. Did we expect them to stand at respectful attention during the opening and closing of class? Yes. We did. Did we expect them to do the same during belt ceremonies? Yup, and when there were a lot of kids, those could be ten to fifteen, even twenty minutes. Would you expect your three-year-old to be able to do that? Most people wouldn’t. But after some time and practice and a lot of gentle reminders, every single one of them could do it. They could help their classmates to do the same. And we’d start getting feedback from parents on how much their focus and attention was increasing at home.
Was it a high expectation? Absolutely. I have a three-year-old. She doesn’t sit still for more than two seconds at a time, even when she’s asleep. I haven’t had occasion to have the expectation she do otherwise at home though when we’re out at a movie or at the symphony, she knows she needs to pick a seat and stay there for a certain period of time. She usually switches a few times, but she does it quickly and quietly. And she does a damn good job.
Kids will meet your expectations. They will rise to it. Not all kids can meet the same expectations, of course, and all of this should be tempered with you knowing your individual children’s limits and capacities. Will they meet your expectations every single time? Probably not. Gracefully? Hells, no. And not necessarily immediately. But kids are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.
Everyone’s expectations of Anakin were that he would rebel, go Dark Side, destroy the order. He did all of those things.
Deepa Bilaba had much higher expectations of her padawan and Kanan rose to meet them in the midst of personal tragedy and turmoil. She trusted him to take the right path and he did even though, in the moment, the Dark side felt right because his soul knew that the Light was right. Her influence during his adolescence made him into a man who knows right from wrong and who will fight for others harder than he would ever fight for himself. He has lost friends, lived a life in constant motion, has had to hide who he is, has existed in an eternal state of hyper-vigilance lest something happen to one of the few people he’s allowed himself to get close to. He has been tortured, he has frozen, he has starved.
Bowing to the Sith would have been easier. Allowing himself to be executed in the wake of Order 66 would have been easier.
Kanan rarely does anything easy.
But he usually does what’s right.
Do as Deepa Bilaba did and it’s a good bet your kids will do as Kanan does. At such a young age? Probably not. Always? Absolutely not. I know I make crappy decisions all the time. But in those important moments? Those defining moments? The definitive moments?
Your kids will rise. They will be Rebels. They will choose the Light.
And the world will be a little bit brighter.