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Talking Importance, Comfort and Success
Yoda We go about our lives saying things to other people and doing things for them. What makes something we do "important", though? I could ask you to "Have a nice day!" or casually inquire, "What's up?" We do that a lot. If you're like most people when I say these things, and I know I can at times be, your responses might very well be "Thanks" and "Not much", respectively. Such two-line conversations seem to not add anything significant to the overall quality of our lives, even added up over the course of our lifetimes. They're fillers, really, sort of like the less evocative songs between hits on an album of pop music. We don't even expect anything compelling to come of them. They have their functions, still, insofar as they serve to continually reestablish societal connections between us. That's an important aspect. Set in the context of communication—see "commune", "communion", "community", and "common" for textual origins and connections—they are drops in an ocean, or mortar between bricks. Less relativistic, the question becomes: what creates a moment of seeming importance then, a wave, a splash, in that ocean? Answering that is a matter of talking about experience, being accustomed, and having perspective.

I worked nights in a machine parts packaging factory one summer in college, and there the everyday discourse was probably extremely dull. Same old, same old. Another day, another dollar. Back to the grind. Etc. What I mean is—tellingly—I have no memory of any of the dialog I exchanged with any of my coworkers at that place, apart from several talks I had about philosophy with one person during meal breaks. The words that individual and I said to each other were quite short of life-changing; I don't remember what philosophically he and I even discussed. Nevertheless, our conversations rose above the level of small talk because I recall having had them. They weren't very important, though. The blue grease covering the machine parts and my hands every night was much more memorable, and that's revealing.

Given the right situational conditions, we can usually become accustomed to pretty much anything, within reason. Partly, that's what times and places like schools, colleges, camps, classes, lessons, seminars and such are for: immersing us in an environment that asks of us that we get used to taking part in activities that are more demanding than to what we'd hitherto experienced. That's why changes like going to school, for instance, are hard for many if only just at first. Over the long run, however, performing well in a context where one is continually officially evaluated is as much it seems about getting our nervous system and everything else about us acclimated to the frequently more intense stimulation as it is about correctly doing what is expected of us. Students who get good grades aren’t just smart; they've become comfortable and to a certain extent happy in school. Likewise, when we fail at something there is always a much larger and longer context than pure capability or lack thereof. Even alone—say, practicing free throws with a basketball in a gym—there is a complex social situation involved. Success and failure are defined by their cultural context, after all. We are societal creatures. If the ball misses the basket, how is it an adequate solution to cast it off as a case of lacking ability, which in fact says nothing? "She just couldn't do it" states the obvious without going further into why. Really, so many variables are involved even when people are in solitude that any single-reason-based attempts to explain evaluations of "success" and "failure" are less helpful than they are diverting. Maybe the ball missed the basket because the thrower, for one thing, was throwing for the first time, or for the 1000th time while distracted by thoughts of a troubled friend. In a larger sense, since shooting and scoring become easier for people (who are inclined toward whatever is involved) with time the way school or any activity does over time we should conclude that it's not just practice that gets us closer to "perfection", but also comfort. Practice involves increasing the ease of use, entirely—when adequate habits form and enough motor control becomes automatic, lots of amazing stuff is possible: juggling, playing a drum set, driving a car, performing surgery, and so on.

In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Luke Skywalker attempts to use The Force to raise his X-Wing out of the swamp on Dagobah. Struggling, he almost does it. He loses his Force grip, though, and the spacecraft sinks back into the muck. Yoda (with much grace) lifts the craft out and sets it on dry land. Astounded, Luke gasps to Yoda, "I don't believe it." Yoda says, "That is why you fail." The moral here seems to be that by way of belief (that you can be successful at something) you thereby have the capacity for that success, or, in a more cultural sense, that once we believe that it is possible for us to achieve something we'd hitherto thought to be impossible, we are that much closer to actually achieving it.

As is sometimes the case, the dialog and subtexts in Star Wars movies are sketchy and roughly realized. Just before Luke's X-Wing raising attempt, he says to Yoda, "All right, I'll give it a try." Yoda responds thusly: "No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try." It's a popular line with fans. Except, the issue we could take with this philosophy of intentionality and action—a question of morality, essentially—is that it is borderline thinking in psychological terms, an "all or nothing" system of dualistic thought in philosophical terms. If Luke "does not", does it make sense to say he still "tried", after all, because really he does lift the X-Wing half out of the swamp? Or, has he completely failed because he didn't completely succeed? We have to turn back to the situational, societal definition of success in that instant. In the situation of the Star Wars universe Yoda says Luke has not at all been successful, meaning the lesson has been officially evaluated based on a pass/fail grading system. When Yoda "does" then, accordingly we're to suppose without "trying", his achievement is constructed to mean that since he believes he can "do", he can succeed.

Even so, beyond the aforementioned scene there is a larger context we cannot ignore in the further action of the movie and its sequel: Luke is training to be a Jedi, and although the X-Wing "failure" moment is an attempt by the movie's story composer George Lucas and the other screenplay writers to place that training within the borderline/duality of pass/fail, it becomes apparent that Luke's lessons are multiple, ongoing, and difficult for him. By then, having dropped the X-Wing becomes something other than a doing or not doing; it's been a lesson in self-confidence. After all, Yoda basically means to say that as Luke becomes more comfortable with the idea that he can do, he will do. Set in the context of his schooling, then, Luke eventually achieves the skill to levitate large objects using the Force not only because he has repeatedly done so, but also because he has not done so enough times by way of effort, attempts, tests of strength and fitness—in other words "trying". This both "trying" and "doing or not doing" at once is where this morality of Star Wars seems to fall apart, to lose its grip on its own Force, so to speak, since it's only partly an adequate notion that we are students of intentionality/action as long as we are doing or not doing what we have set out to do, whereas no level of mastery would ever be accomplished without failures and partial successes. Star Wars itself at this fracture is partly successful at avoiding the idea of partial success. Truly, at that point any number of its instances of not doing become parts of the larger doing, the having done. What Luke does as a "successful" Jedi Knight later is much more a result of many small past pass/fail lessons (according to Yoda's grading scheme) than any immediate accomplishment right then and there. Jabba the Hutt is defeated in Return of the Jedi because Luke has spent time with Yoda trying to be a Jedi, not only passing or failing but also trying to pass—not to fail—nevertheless, and little by little succeeding. Life and lessons are full of these gray areas of success, in a way, more than they are so of complete wins or abject losses.

Important talk, important doing, important accomplishments through speech or other physical action seem less common in most people's everyday lives than they do in the lives of characters depicted in movies and other forms of entertainment, of course. If they didn't we'd have much less use for movies, TV shows, theater, music or for that matter anything else where another person or party is doing something extremely interesting to us, probably with so much skill they make it look easy. The mundane is always in stark contrast to the spectacular. It doesn't have to be like this, although in a way it likely always will be insofar as since so many different skill sets are necessary to keep our civilization functioning (political leaders, janitors, computer technicians, nurses, banjo players, and so on ad infinitum). We can and often do simply consider our everyday lives to be humdrum and normal because what we get good at over time we also necessarily become very comfortable with and desensitized to. Sensing other people doing what to us seems amazingly novel and therefore enjoyable to us as a spectator doesn't necessarily mean they are doing anything more important than our jobs and/or hobbies. It might mean that. It might not. When I packaged grease-coated machine parts for a living that summer, I was contributing to the ongoing cause of maintaining a working society, albeit in a small way. Arguably, the philosophical conversations I had on my breaks were far less important than the manual labor I was performing on the clock. This is a matter of perspective, it would seem. We can't all be Jedi Knights saving the galaxy from tyrannical evil. Tales of epic battles like Star Wars dramatically accentuate divisions between good and bad, hero and villain, pass and fail, etc., and yet as long as we real people get up in the morning, try to do good jobs, take care of ourselves and others, and be nice to our fellow beings, it can be said fairly accurately that we are heroes succeeding at doing some good, that the galaxy is better off for our presence.
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