Originally published in Area of Effect magazine
Temptation is where selfish desire and short-sightedness meet. When our inmost longings are within our reach but will surely come at a terrible cost, our convictions are tested. Luke Skywalker faces this struggle in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke’s father. Vader immediately presents Luke with a temptation:
“Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny! Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son! Come with me. It is the only way.”
Vader offers victory for the rebellion, purpose, and family (not to mention escaping almost certain death). Luke wants all these things and, on the surface, they’re worthy of wanting. But Luke is also aware of the cost of accepting Vader’s offer—the death of his friends and the surrender of his ideals.
In The Last Jedi, Kylo mirrors Vader’s offer by asking Rey to join him. But the stakes are even higher because Kylo is now first in command. He is offering Rey ultimate power, where she would have to answer to no one. The decision is less black-and-white than Vader’s proposition to Luke, because the connection between Kylo and Rey has revealed their hopes and fears to each other. Rey knows that Kylo is also Ben Solo, and believes he isn’t utterly evil, but his ambition has gone unchecked. No matter what decision Rey makes, she will have to bear the weight of what might’ve been.
Kylo offers her a place in his new kingdom, a pitch difficult for Rey to resist.
“It’s time to let old things die, Rey. I want you to join me; we can bring a new order to the galaxy, let go! […] You have no place in this story. You’re nobody, but not to me. Join me—please!”
The temptation is real because Rey’s hopes and fears are real. She’s afraid of not having a place in the world, and Kylo offers her an opportunity to belong somewhere. She may not have a significant ancestry and Kylo may truly care for her, but like Darth Vader before him, Kylo’s offer rings hollow. Both offers are so dangerous because they target lesser loves. They present what Luke and Rey both desire, but torn from its proper context—they propose redemption without repentance.
The dark side is characterized as much by the path of least resistance as it is by overt evil. Vader chooses it initially to protect someone he loves, but also as the easy path to give in to his rage. Kylo wants power and his own legacy, and the dark side offers him a way to do that. They both chase their desires the easy way. They both ultimately want good things, like loving families and their own identities, but the evil they commit in pursuit of these things diminishes their souls. In fact, Luke and Rey can be seen as the last pieces in their quests—the good ends that justified the evil means. But it’s precisely this naked self-conceit that reveals the deeper deception to Luke and Rey.
The problem with Vader’s and Kylo’s offers, as with most temptation, is that accepting would result in hurting innocent people. In Luke and Rey’s case, it’s the people they care about most (plus a galaxy of bystanders). Vader and Kylo assume their same level of self-interest and willingness to succumb to temptation is in Luke and Rey. They don’t understand why someone would deny themselves, but Rey and Luke do, both running straight to their loved ones after fleeing temptation. They turn away from the quick gratification of the dark side and put their hope in greater—if still more distant—loves. They’re willing to believe in a self-giving community that fails forward and forgives; a family of rebels and rejects who put the interests of the weak ahead of the strong. Luke and Rey sacrifice quick gratification for the promise of a galaxy where friends, failures, and family combine. Building it won’t come easily and it starts with saying “no” to themselves.
The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back evoke the pain of missed opportunities and wasted potential that I find uncomfortably familiar, and they present their heroes with temptations that I find just as attractive and dangerous as Luke and Rey do. These fateful encounters expose my greatest fears and deepest loves by holding a mirror up to my own heart. I’m too often willing to sacrifice hope in future joy for today’s self-interest. I see myself in the vulnerable disappointment that grips Luke and Rey; even more, I find myself closer to the grasping desperation of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren than I’d like to admit. The Force may be with me, but it doesn’t keep me from trouble.
Choosing to be selfless in the face of temptation is so difficult, I’ve lost count of my failures, especially when decisions aren’t black-and-white. I’m quick to consider all the good I could accomplish with Darth Vader’s power, but then I remember all the evil done in the name of good things. Win or lose, selfishness isolates and selflessness invites, so a step I’m trying to consistently take in overcoming temptation is asking a simple question: who am I loving right now?