In 1980, during my first summer home from college, I worked at the Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center. The Research Center sat squarely in the Grand Prairie amidst thousands of acres of rice and soybeans. Stuttgart, the nearest town, had the distinction of being the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World”. Personally, I would include “Mosquito Capital of the World” as well, but that level of truth would butt heads with the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce.
The Grand Prairie is a flat expanse, boasting thousands of acres of dirt. This topography is perfect for growing rice, which requires millions of gallons of water. The water sits about eight inches deep in the rice fields. It stagnates between the levees, becoming a breeding ground for the largest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen. They are the size of hummingbirds with talons like an eagle and a proboscis the size of a 7-gauge needle. Acres of stagnant water are like Disney World for these mosquito birds. I can still hear the humming of their wings at night as they flew around my head while I was trying to sleep.
During the summer the air was thick with dust, and the humidity was so high that, given the time of day, it was as if I was breathing mud. For July, August, and most of September the sun broiled every bit of exposed skin I had. Later in life, when I discovered what a convection oven was, I had a flashback to those days on the farm.
My job at the Research and Extension Center was loathsome. Three of us would sit on makeshift perches on the front of a tractor, riding back and forth across a field, spraying an array of toxic chemicals on plots of soybeans. The herbicides would inevitably coat our faces and make their way into our noses. I came home every afternoon smelling of experimental post-emergent herbicides. I wonder now what our boss at the Center referred to us as. We didn’t have a title, so I imagine we were “those boys on the front of the tractor”. Knowing what I do today, it might have been more appropriate to refer to us as “those poor unwitting boys on the front of the tractor taking a shower in carcinogens”.
Breathing chemicals for ten hours a day and continuing to taste them during supper was the universe telling me to “Run! Run for your life!” But until Fall and a return to college, I was stuck wearing my badge of courage in the form of a Riceland Foods® cap—slaying weeds with a wand that spewed poisons. Other than work, rarely did I have an opportunity to leave our property.
My family owned 500 acres, many of which were wooded, so on the weekends my escape came in three forms. The first of my preoccupations was staying inside and pretending to read. This was especially nice during the summer months. If I was inside watching television, my parents would insist that I go outside and find something to do. But as long as I was reading (or pretending to read as it were), my parents didn’t disturb me. I think they left me alone because they were so pleased that they had a child who enjoyed reading as much as I pretended to. Another way I spent my free time was aimlessly trekking around our property acting as if I enjoyed hunting. As I recall I never killed anything. I just walked around the woods with a gun. Why did I carry a gun? Because my father would have thought it ridiculous for a grown man to walk around the woods for pleasure—unarmed. My favorite escape was sitting under a tree on the bank of our pond fishing. Although I had to be slathered in insect repellant, the solitude brought me great peace.
Regardless of what I was doing, leaving was something that was always on my mind.
Since the nearest theater was an hour away in Pine Bluff, getting to see a movie on the big screen was a rare treat. But that summer I made the journey to see Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. To say I’m a big fan of this movie is a colossal understatement. I think it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen—maybe one of the most powerful films ever made. I had been waiting almost three years to see it, since the release of A New Hope, the first Star Wars movie.
Luke Skywalker, the central protagonist of the Star Wars films, desires more than anything to become a Jedi Knight. Jedi Knights serve and use a mystical power called the Force to help and protect those in need. In a twist of fate, while Luke is cleaning one of his droids, he triggers a hologram of Princess Leia. The hologram was a plea for help, meant to be seen by Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. In desperation Leia begs, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Luke was so enamored by Leia, that her plea for help becomes his call to adventure.
In my favorite movie scene of all time, Luke has crash-landed his X-wing fighter in a murky swamp on the planet Dagobah. Luke is recklessly determined to find Master Yoda, a Jedi Master who can train him in the ways of the Jedi Knights. Luke’s weakness is his inability to see beyond his own cravings. He desperately needs Yoda to train him so he can fight for the Rebel Alliance and destroy the evil Galactic Empire before Emperor Palpatine completely extinguishes the Jedi Order.
The scene unfolds like this:
In a bluish swamp with fog lurking just above the ground, Luke is upside-down; standing on his hands with Yoda perched on his feet. His face is showing enormous strain. Opposite Luke and Yoda are two rocks the size of bowling balls. Luke stares at the rocks and concentrates. One of the rocks lifts from the ground and floats up to rest on the other.
Yoda says (in a voice that sounds vaguely like Grover from Sesame Street if Grover was a 2-pack-a-day smoker), “Use the Force. Feel it.” Luke concentrates on trying to lift the top rock. It rises a few feet, but, distracted by his droid R2’s frantic beeping, Luke loses his balance and collapses. Yoda jumps clear.
Luke rushes to the edge of the swamp. His X-wing fighter has sunk into the murky waters of the swamp, and only the tip of its nose is showing above the water’s surface. Feeling hopeless, Luke’s voice is filled with disappointment and frustration. “We’ll never get it out now.”
Yoda stamps his foot in irritation and says, “So certain are you. Always with you what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”
“Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.”
“No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”
“Alright, I’ll give it a try.”
“No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”
This section of dialogue is so powerful. I heard it oh so many years ago, but didn’t internalize it until much later in my life.
Luke closes his eyes and concentrates on willing his ship out of the swamp. Slowly, the X-wing’s nose begins to rise above the water. It hovers for a moment and then sinks back, disappearing once again.
Looking exhausted, Luke says, “I can’t. It’s too big.”
With furrowed brow, Yoda says, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Mmm. As well you should not. For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings we are…not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between the land and the ship!”
“You want the impossible.”
Quietly Yoda turns toward the X-wing fighter. With his eyes closed and his head bowed, he raises his arm and points his gnarled hand at the ship. The X-wing slowly emerges from the swamp and glides majestically, surely, toward the shore. With his own theme song reaching a crescendo in the background, Yoda stands on the root of a tree and guides the fighter carefully down toward the shore.
“No way.” Luke stares in astonishment as the fighter settles down onto the shore. He walks around the ship and reaches in disbelief to touch it. Bewildered, he approaches Yoda.
Luke: “I…I don’t believe it.”
Yoda: “That is why you fail.”
This message from Yoda resonated with me in the darkness of the theater. Thirty years of watching this scene over and over again has burned an afterimage onto my consciousness. Years later it edges its way to the front of my mind to shine light on how I approach many decisions. What would I do if I believed I couldn’t fail? If I had only been wise enough at 19 to understand the deep meaning of Yoda’s advice: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
As a teen and young man, I walked around our farm and wished I had a Yoda in my life. I thought to myself, “How do I get to Dagobah from here?” In the years since watching Luke’s story unfold, I’ve realized that the journey (not the destination) is the goal. I don’t have to be somewhere else to find what I need. All I need is around me every day. I have figured out that there are many Yodas in my life, and I am lucky that I can be Yoda for others too.
We are all on a quest to find our truest selves amidst the voices in our heads. We are all in search of wise mentors like Yoda—people who teach us to look up and around and to be amazed by what we see. And people who encourage us to reflect and search inwardly for ways to make our light brighter so we can light the paths of others. Each of us is a hero on a journey. There is something greater calling us. We are divine inspirations waiting to be born. We learn and unlearn and learn again. We fall apart and come together. We fail and try again. We wonder and imagine. We find sacred lessons in our darkness and in the joyous light of our living.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie clip I’ve written about, you can watch it here: http://youtu.be/c1TlAma0JFM