Star Wars, Kylo Ren, and Embracing Contradicting Duality

To fully understand Kylo Ren, we will have to delve into material in all three films. So unlike Luke racing to Cloud City, proceed with caution.

Kylo Ren and Duality
January 14, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing

The Dead Speak! But unlike the sudden nature of the Rise of Skywalker opening crawl, we should warn you about potential and sudden spoilers for all three of the “new” Star Wars trilogy sequel films (“The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi,” and “The Rise of Skywalker”). To fully understand Kylo Ren, we will have to delve into material in all three films. So unlike Luke racing to Cloud City, proceed with caution.

Kylo Ren, the infamous villain in the latest Star Wars trilogy, offers us a case study of the basic yin and yang nature of the human spirit. Rejecting his given name “Ben Solo” and the legacy of his storied family, he embraced the dark side in his youth and adopted the far scarier moniker “Kylo Ren.” He not only rejected his given name, but he chose to reject any expectation of benevolence in his future. As the only son of beloved Princess / General Leia Organa and Han Solo, he was born into a place of great expectation and possibility. Endowed with the powers of The Force, he was placed under the tutelage of his uncle, the legendary Jedi Luke Skywalker. It was easy to see early in his training that Kylo’s talents were far beyond what anyone expected, and his power would have a great impact on the galaxy. But despite all of his family history, Luke’s tutelage, and his own morality, Kylo turned his mind and his attention toward a life of conquest, cruelty, and corruption.

In fact, he rejected the law-abiding society his parents had help save and reestablish in the shadow of the empire. He soon rose to prominence and power as one of only a handful of Force users in the newly established First Order. His ultimate sin is taking his own father’s life (#JusticeForHanSolo) near the conclusion of “The Force Awakens.” Many fans felt that Kylo Ren was beyond redemption after this betrayal on par with a Greek tragedy. However, Ben Solo ultimately returns to the light near the conclusion of “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Although few of us (hopefully) descend fully and forever into the dark side of life, the story of Kylo Ren illustrates how we are all compilations of both good and bad actions and attributes. Dark and light, from a certain point of view (smirk). Which path we choose to travel may be influenced by several factors:

Emotional Intensity: Genetic or psychological factors that can make us more vulnerable to reacting negatively or overreactive to events in the moment
Coping Skills: Effective coping skills help us to calm down, tolerate distress, and regulate our emotions returning us to a calm state of mind – which is great unless you don’t have any of them.
Free Will and Choice: The critical choice we make when we are becoming emotionally flooded to use our coping skills fully and willingly otherwise we lose the high ground.

Emotional Intensity: Kylo is intensely emotional. We see this time and again in the newest trilogy where he is regularly rageful and takes out his tantrums on the people or things around him. Many a Storm Trooper took the longer route to their destination if they heard Kylo Ren raging nearby. Rarely, and often only when Rey is present, would he actually verbalize his point of view with clear conviction and logic. He even persuades Rey to his point of view a handful of times across the trilogy. Kylo Ren has always had the capacity to think clearly and control himself – he just chooses not to most of the time.

The bottom line is that emotional intensity worked both for and against him. In certain contexts and when channeled correctly, emotional intensity can inspire great moments of leadership, insight, and masterful execution. For instance, Kylo’s emotional intensity inspired him to betray Snoke and team up with Rey to execute his coup d’etat in one of the best sequences of “The Last Jedi.” He formulated a plan in the moment and took over the First Order with a flick of his wrist and the help of his powerful ally Rey. However when his emotions go unchecked, they make him more vulnerable to spontaneous violence and making mistakes. Early in “The Last Jedi,” Snoke scolds Kylo for losing the light saber duel with Rey at the end of “The Force Awakens.” Snoke spits at him that murdering his father, Han Solo, caused him to lose the battle when he says, “You were unbalanced, bested by a girl who had never held a lightsaber! You failed!” Putting aside any concerns about a hostile work environment, Snoke has a point. Murdering his father definitely knocked Kylo Ren off balance, and he was not at peak performance in his showdown with Finn and Rey near the end of “The Force Awakens.” Kylo Ren’s emotional intensity lead to both his greatest achievements and most embarrassing defeats.

However, research teaches us that emotional intensity often leads to depressed and anxious thoughts that can reach a tipping point over time. We learn from Luke (and other Star Wars related media) that Ben Solo’s dark, depressive thoughts were influenced and coached by Snoke over many years. As his general viewpoint became increasingly dark, he became more vulnerable to his negative emotions and impulses. Although he was surrounded by endless support, kind reflection, and benevolence, his intense reactivity and dark outlook led him into increasing negativity and ultimately choosing the Dark Side. He ultimately jumped off the deep end into full and unrelenting violence and rage when he woke up suddenly and misinterpreted Luke’s behavior as aggressive. That was the last straw. He was already suspicious of his Uncle, mostly due to Snoke’s influence, but this one moment was all the confirmation he needed. He chose his path in that one instance and plunged the galaxy further into darkness.

Coping Skills: A guiding principle in Dialectical Behavior Therapy is that most people are doing the very best that they can, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot do better. When we have emotional intensity, it is difficult to employ and sustain effective coping skills in the moment. Emotional intensity is hard to ignore once it has a hold of you, and it can easily derail any interaction or intention.

Many people use ineffective or self-sabotaging coping skills that are likely to keep them comfortable momentarily but at great cost. For instance, we may become dependent upon substances and develop addictions to alcohol, drugs, or pills or even behavioral vices like gambling or shopping addictions. We are discharging the emotional intensity into ineffective behaviors that are sabotaging and reinforcing of the negative mindset. Another popular option is to avoid our emotions through denial or compartmentalization making them even more compelling and difficult down the road. Such patterns reinforce a chronic sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and most of all utter despair. As we all know, bottled up emotions always come out in the end. However, we would encourage a healthy method of expression.

Spoiler alert, Kylo Ren’s emotions are not expressed in a healthy manner. As previously mentioned, he unleashes his rage upon whatever is in front of him as his emotions surge through him. He destroys an entire room of Starkiller Base with his lightsaber, he smashes his mask in an elevator after Snoke ridicules him, and he commands all of his forces in the vicinity to fire on Luke Skywalker for multiple minutes near the conclusion of “The Last Jedi” as he mutters “More! More! More!” While he has great gifts and can be extremely effective in certain situations, Kylo Ren’s emotional explosions distract him and cause him to be easily manipulated and ineffective much of the time. In fact, this known vulnerability is exactly what Luke Skywalker uses to distract Kylo Ren and the First Order while the Rebellion retreats to safety. A fleet of effective coping skills would help Kylo Ren far more in his quest for power than a fleet of Star Destroyers on Exegol.

Free Will and Choice: If we choose to engage in a worldview of anger and revenge or avoidance and externalization of blame, we will create a personal reality that is lonely, ineffective, and destructive. Inaccurate interpretations of reality reinforce the world of negative emotions – depression, despair and negativity. If you choose to not use effective coping skills and confront negative emotions in the moment, negative thoughts tend to replicate and intensify. It’s all about the choice in the moment.

Master Yoda reminds Luke Skywalker on Dagobah in “The Empire Strikes Back,” “But beware of the Dark Side – anger, fear, aggression. The Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” Yoda teaches his apprentice that negativity, anger, and fear are the easy choice, and the more benevolent path in the Force requires an active choice to not succumb to dark temptation. In a moment of doubt, Luke asks Yoda:

Luke – “Is the Dark Side stronger?”
Yoda – “No, no, no… quicker, easier, more seductive.”
Luke – “But how am I to know the good side from the bad?”
Yoda – “You will know when you’re calm. At peace. Passive. Hmm… a Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack.”

Yoda coaches his padawan to remain calm and clear his mind lest he lose himself to the Dark Side. While it may feel good in the moment, it will ruin you in the end. The Light Side is more difficult but ultimately comes with a more rewarding life.

If free will and personal choice are channeled consistently into using effective coping skills, our reactions and decisions will be much more positive, accurate, and self-supportive. When we make good decisions with a clear mind, we are generating not only a better and more effective solution – we are experiencing ourselves in a different way. We see that we are more competent in handling problems and resolving them.

Our Own State of Contradictions

Although it is uncomfortable to think of ourselves has having both strengths and weaknesses, it is also important to recognize the existence of both sides of our personalities. Doing so allows us to accurately interpret our lives and daily experiences. We can recognize our many gifts and benevolent acts while also working to avoid the pitfalls of negative thinking and ineffectiveness.

Acknowledging our own capacity to be negative in word and deed also allows us to recognize that other people have similar possibilities. We are less likely to be judgmental of others when we identify with them. Even though we all have the capacity to be unkind and even cruel, our choices make the critical difference.

Much of “The Last Jedi” focuses on the push-pull relationship between Kylo Ren and Rey as they influence and sway each other through conversations using the Force or the far more snappy “ForceTime calls.” Both characters recognize the duality of their counterpart. Kylo Ren is not completely lost in the Dark Side as he shows restraint when it comes to his mother, General Leia, or his attempts to recruit Rey to his side instead of killing her in “The Force Awakens.” Although Rey is currently aligned with the light and the Jedi, she certainly shows an affinity for the Dark Side. She screams and shouts aggressively during her lightsaber duels, obviously channeling some measure of anger or rage into her swordplay. In a shocking moment of “The Rise of Skywalker,” she accidentally releases a blast of Force Lightning on a transport causing it to explode. Rey wears her emotions on her sleeve instead of the more calm, peaceful mind that Yoda endorses. Kylo and Rey see each other as allies even though they are fighting for opposite sides. They recognize their literal yin and yang relationship – light with a dash of dark, dark with a beam of light.

One of the best scenes in “The Last Jedi” has Kylo Ren and Rey making one last pitch to each other to switch sides. After defending each other and fighting side by side after Kylo Ren’s betrayal of Snoke, Rey assumes that Kylo Ren has stepped back into the light. She immediately asks him to help her save the Rebel fleet, but she turns around to see Kylo Ren slowly approach the throne where Snoke sat moments before. She quietly asks, “Ben?” hoping to gently jostle him out of his day dream with his given name. However, Kylo Ren is having a completely different scene play out in his mind. He assumes Rey has joined him in his coup d’etat to seize control of The First Order and rule the universe together. He assumed that he had turned her to the dark. As they slowly realize that each of them had misunderstood the other, their heartbreak plays out in their words. Kylo reacts with anger and commands; Rey quietly mutters “Don’t do this, Ben.” As they are literally blown away from each other, each of them is now more entrenched in their choices and beliefs.

When we experience the world through the lens of negativity, like Kylo Ren, we often have minimal insight into our dark view of the world. It seems normal to us. We don’t understand the evolution of our misery and how it compounds itself over time. We justify our negative mindset and interpretations while minimizing the positives in our lives. To make matters worse, the brain narrows our focus and magnifies all the factors that support our darker view of things. The brain literally dedicates itself to promoting a worldview that is discouraged, devoid of meaning, and hopeless. From that prison of depression, we justify our own recklessness, our hateful choices toward others, and the cruelty we inflict upon ourselves.

As with Kylo Ren’s eventual redemption and return to benevolence in “The Rise of Skywalker,” anyone can make a different choice at any time. As Luke reminds Leia near the end of “The Last Jedi,” “No one’s ever really gone.” Ben Solo’s redemption is spurred by his choice to change after he feels the loss of his mother reverberate through the galaxy. He hears her last gasp of “Ben” as she passes away, and it causes him to finally make the choice to change. He wants to help others, stop the Final Order, and save Rey most of all. Donning the finest of athleisure suits, he ultimately saves Rey and sacrifices himself to bring her back to life and save the galaxy. Kylo Ren is an excellent example of our inherent dual nature, and our ability to be either positive or negative depending on our choices. Establishing self-control and effective behaviors is a decision that is tested dozens of times every day. Hopefully, we make the right choice in the moment. Or as Master Yoda famously reminds us, “Do. Or Do not. There is no try.”

Source: Dr. Marsha Linehan, DBT Skills Training Manual, The Guildford Press, second edition, 2015

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