“Do. Or not do. There is no try.” This little koan from The Empire Strikes Back (the second of the Star Wars movies, or Episode V, depending on your age) has been bouncing around as a meme since 1980 on t-shirts, buttons and then online.
The scene was set in the swamps of Dagobah where a rather whiny Luke Skywalker was being schooled by his mentor, Master Yoda.
I like Yoda. I have read in multiple places that the special effects folks modeled Yoda’s old, wise face (especially the eyes) on photos of Albert Einstein. His voice always sounds like a bit of Kermit the Frog is mixed into it. (Although the puppet was voiced by the wonderful Frank Oz who was not Kermit but was Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover, so perhaps I am hearing all of them.)
Yoda, at about age 900, is wise, but only as wise as his writers.
What did he actually mean to teach Luke with those words?
Some people interpret it to mean that since ultimately you will either accomplish a task or not, if you aren’t going to accomplish something, then there is no point in trying. That is quite unsatisfying as a philosophy. Since none of us can know if we will accomplish a task, how can we decide beforehand whether to try?
Since much of what we learn requires failing before we succeed, I don’t think he means don’t try unless you are going to succeed. That approach would leave many things left undone and many things never experienced.
I’ll give Yoda credit for not being that simplistic.
Let us give the quote a bit more context. Earlier in that movie scene, Luke tries to extract his X-wing ship from the swamp and fails. It actually sinks deeper into the water. Luke had been successful earlier with smaller objects, but this one was overwhelming because of its size.
LUKE: We’ll never get it out now.
YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.
YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Master Yoda is able to use his mind and The Force to lift the ship from the swamp.
Amazed, Luke says “I don’t believe it!”and Yoda replies “That is why you fail.”
The key then must be in the believing that you can succeed.
It is not that we should not try, but you need to redefine “trying” to be something more than just any attempt. I don’t think Yoda believes that not doing something is an option.
The attempt is not an objective, and unlearning is a large part of learning.
Is it sad that some people have taken cultural references like those in Star Wars films as a kind of philosophy or even a substitute for religion? It is sad to those who have a religion or philosophy. I don’t think it is sad or bad for someone who has neither of those things and is starting on a path.
Can you believe in The Force without equating it to a God that connects and holds everything together? Yes, you can. You can also see it as a cultural reference to that God. I think it works both ways.
Films are like books in holding bits of wisdom. I’m sure that some readers or viewers of the Lord of the Rings, are attached to the line that Gandalf says to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Good advice, and like almost all good advice, difficult to follow. Difficult to do. Unlikely to succeed; therefore, not to try?
I think not.
Yoda is a backwards-grammar speaking little philosopher who has 800 years worth of teaching experience and quotes in him that were gathered (by writers) from religion, philosophy and literature. When he says,”Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” you hear the Buddha. Or maybe Jesus Christ, or the Tao.
But the Buddha he is not.
I don’t think Yoda was exposed to any of Earth’s culture in his far away galaxy. It reminds me of when I first took religion courses in college. As I studied one religion after another that I had known little or nothing about before that time, the major realization was that more often than not we have arrived at the same places by different paths. I believe beings in another galaxy would do the same.
Yoda’s little koans are useful in the same way that the koans are useful.
If you read these quotes:
Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.
and they resonate for you, how much does it matter who the speaker turns out to be?
Was it Yoda or a philosopher? Are they from scriptures or the dogma? If I reveal to you that it was Einstein, do you need to know that he was spiritual but not religious, a scientist and a believer, someone who sought a theory to explain it all even though he probably knew he would never find it, in order to appreciate his words?