The TEDx Talk, November 2019: Hyperspacing Hope

Script of the talk:

In 1977, a low-budget space opera debuted on a handful of movie screens. Today, we refer to that movie as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Back then, though, it was just called Star Wars. The “Episode IV: A New Hope” business wasn’t added to the movie until 1981.

But hope was always a part of the story. In fact, the revised fourth draft of the script, from early 1976, features “A New Hope” on the title page.

I happen to know a lot about Star Wars. I’ve hosted the world’s only daily Star Wars podcast, Star Wars 7×7, for more than five years. Episode 1,961 debuted earlier this morning.

I presume you’re familiar with Star Wars, and I have good reason to. In the book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, author Chris Taylor tells the story about his publishers at Mashable teaming up with Lucasfilm and in 2013 to recruit people who had never seen A New Hope to a special screening of the film.

San Francisco Metropolitan Area. 4 million people. They could only find 30 newbies who’d never seen Star Wars. More people showed up at the screening to watch the newbies watch it for the first time!

How has this movie, this franchise, resonated so strongly with people for more than forty years?

Well, the story of Star Wars is based on the “monomyth,” a concept developed by the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It’s a common story form in many cultures, now popularly referred to as the “Hero’s Journey.” A hero leaves their ordinary world, faces a series of escalating challenges, and returns transformed by the experience.

George Lucas drew upon this legendary story form, as well as elements from other cinematic genres. The artists at Industrial Light and Magic set a new bar for realistic visual and special effects. And composer John Williams ignited a renaissance in orchestral movie scores.

All of this was important to the success of Star Wars. I believe there is another, unsung and crucial reason for Star Wars‘ longstanding influence.

The Star Wars stories have deeply explored the nature of hope, and shown us how to live in a world, a galaxy, where hope is at times lost to us.

When I began contemplating this talk, I tried to think back to my first memory of the concept of hope. And it wasn’t actually tied to Star Wars. It was tied to a song the by band Genesis, and one of the lyrics is, “Hold on/just keep on hoping against hope/that it’s gonna get better.”

It was a message I needed to hear at the time, but that phrase was like a splinter in my mind’s eye. Hoping against hope? Ridiculous! It contradicts itself, and immediately.

And it’s not like more famous references to hope in our culture are easier to understand. In Greek mythology, when Pandora opens the box and releases a variety of evils into the world, she closes it just in time to keep hope in the box.

What does that tell us about the nature of hope? Nothing, really. And depending on the translation, it’s “foreboding” left in the box, not hope. Which makes things even more complicated.

Then there’s the poet Emily Dickinson. This one has been stuck in my head since high school: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops – at all.”

So … hope is a bird? Also, not easy to understand.

And then there’s the Sandra Bullock movie, Hope Floats. So hope is buoyant, we know that much!

Then there’s The Empire Strikes Back.

In the beginning of the movie, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are lost in the frozen wastelands of the ice planet Hoth. The faithful droid R2-D2 calculates their odds of survival overnight at 725 to 1, and hedges his bets by noting that his scanners are too weak to abandon all hope.

And everyone in that Rebel base – and the audience – gets it. We’re hoping against the odds that they will survive, against our lowered expectations, that things will turn out well.

Now, that’s an extreme use of hope. Most of the time, when we talk about hope, we talk about it pretty casually.

“I hope the lunch food here will be decent.”

“I hope the traffic won’t be too bad on the way home.”

“I hope the puppy won’t have chewed up another pair of my wife’s shoes while we’re gone.”

But hope can also be a serious game, with serious stakes.

I carried the weight of hope and expectation for success in my family. For generations before me, high school was the biggest achievement. I had the potential to be the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college. To actually “make something” of himself. I was reminded of it often. But it was a difficult future for me to see.

My parents were divorced. I hadn’t had any interaction with my father since I turned two, and was raised believing he wanted nothing to do with me. I lived with a single mother in a one-bedroom apartment in a Los Angeles suburb, only one other kid I knew about in the whole block full of apartment buildings, who I barely knew and rarely saw.

I was in day care a lot when I was younger, home alone a lot when I was older, a latchkey kid listening to Genesis on vinyl because that’s how you listened to albums. In the summers, L.A. had Stage 1 smog alerts. That’s when the air quality is so bad, doctors literally tell you that you should stay indoors, not go outside to play.

The small religious school I’d attended through 8th grade closed, because only nine of the 30 kids in my class enrolled in the 9th grade. I hadn’t had to make new friends for nearly a decade. I’d totally forgotten how. My new high school? 45-minute bus ride away, 1,500 kids. And after school, I went to work as a janitor. At my own high school.

When I was growing up, California’s suicide rate per capita was double the national average.

In the San Fernando Valley, the section of Los Angeles where I spent the first 21 years of my life, suicide is second only to coronary heart disease as the leading cause of premature death.

More than car accidents. More than drug overdoses. More than cancer.

Star Wars is what sustained me. Books, comics, cartoons, newsletters, you name it, I was into it. And toys. Yes, I was a teenager playing with Star Wars toys. But I rarely talked about it. Kids in my small religious school made fun of me when I revealed I’d gotten two LEGO sets as a sixth-grade graduation present. So I learned to keep my mouth shut about those geeky kinds of things. For a while.

But privately, Star Wars fired my imagination, and fueled my hope. Hope that life could be better than living in a tiny upstairs apartment, breathing air that could burn your lungs at times, often with no friends to talk to or bond with, keeping my passions hidden for fear of ridicule.

Fast forward to today, when I can breathe fresh air with good friends, and share my passion with listeners from more than 150 countries where Star Wars 7×7 has been heard.

The thing about hope, though, is that it achieves nothing by itself. My sharp-witted grandmother liked to remind me that “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” For hope to be a useful force in your life, pun intended, you need to look in other places for lessons about hope.

Star Wars has taught me a lot about hope – about the contagiousness of hope, the power of other-centered hope, the constellation of emotions that surrounds and binds hope, and how hope sometimes requires reframing, for example.

But I believe this is the most important thing I’ve learned:

Storytelling is one of the fastest, most powerful ways to convey hope to its intended audience.

You could say that storytelling is the Millennium Falcon of hope. A long time ago, the Millennium Falcon was the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. She may be the oldest starship in the hangar now, but she’s still got a few surprises left in her.

In fact, Star Wars itself gives a nod to the power of storytelling in Return of the Jedi, the final movie in what’s referred to as the Original Trilogy. That’s the one with the ferocious teddy bears known as the Ewoks, who were fighting their own losing battle against the technologically superior Empire.

Late one night, huddled in a hut around a fire, the droid C-3PO tells the Ewoks the story of his band of Rebels. Essentially, he tells the Ewoks the stories of the first two movies, during the third movie! And as a result, the Ewoks make the Rebels members of their tribe, and help them defeat the Empire.

Storytelling is one of the fastest, most powerful ways to convey hope to its intended audience. It’s the Millennium Falcon of hope.

A few years ago, for the 501st episode of the podcast, I interviewed a guy from South Carolina named Albin Johnson. He, like many people, was very excited for the 20th anniversary of Star Wars in 1997. Lucasfilm re-released all three original Star Wars movies in theaters that year as “Special Editions.”

Well, Albin took his excitement a bit farther than most. He found someone in California who was selling a set of homemade stormtrooper armor, made arrangements with his local movie theater, and patrolled the theater as a stormtrooper during the re-release of The Empire Strikes Back. Later that year, a friend named Tom Crews joined him and they both wore stormtrooper armor for the release of Return of the Jedi.

They set up a website to share pictures of themselves “trooping,” and it turned out they weren’t the only ones who liked to wear Star Wars costumes in public. And not costumes like Halloween costumes, but “screen-accurate” costumes – ones that were so realistic, they looked like they walked right off the movie set.

Photos came in from all over the world, and Albin and Tom realized they were on to something. In August of 1997, they started referring to themselves and their costumed friends as the 501st Legion.

Today, the Legion has nearly 14,000 active members on six continents, with local units in more than 60 countries. George Lucas made them an official part of the story of Star Wars, naming a unit of clone troopers after them in Revenge of the Sith. And Albin marched with hundreds of 501st Legion members in the New Year’s Day Rose Parade at the request of Lucas, who was the Grand Marshal in 2007.

But that’s not the most remarkable thing about Albin’s story.

In the early 2000s, one of Albin’s daughters, Katie, was diagnosed with brain cancer.

There’s a scene in another of the Star Wars movies where the droid R2-D2 keeps watch over a character while she sleeps. Katie wanted her own R2 unit to watch over her, so Albin worked with another fan organization, the R2 Builders Club, to make her dream come true.

Katie passed away in 2005, and the 501st Legion evolved into something bigger – the “Bad Guys Doing Good.” Through public appearances, hospital visits, a first-of-its-kind Endowment Fund partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and other charitable works, the 501st and its sister organizations, including the Rebel Legion, the Mandalorian Mercs, the R2 Builders Club, and the Saber Guild, have raised millions of dollars for organizations fighting pediatric illnesses.

The droid created in Katie’s honor, R2-KT, has also become an enduring symbol of their commitment to children’s health and happiness. Lucasfilm even gave R2-KT her own movie moment, in a scene near the end of The Force Awakens.

And it all started because one guy got so much joy from Star Wars that he went to his local movie theater wearing stormtrooper armor.

Now, I’m not here to recruit you into wearing stormtrooper armor. If you’re interested, I know a few people, I can point you in the right direction. I’m here because sometimes it’s easy to feel hopeless, and sometimes it’s hard to get out of that feeling. That could apply to your life personally, professionally, politically, what have you. And for many people, it’s chemical. To a large degree, it’s literally out of their control.

If you’ve ever felt that way, whatever the cause, you probably would have loved a fast-forward button, so you could just zip ahead to the good part, where you’re the hero of your story and you’ve already conquered the day.

As a kid, I didn’t have that button, either. All I had was a story to inspire me when I couldn’t be my own inspiration. All I had was a chance, a choice to escape to my imagination, to a galaxy far, far away.

We need stories like Star Wars, like the ones inspired by Star Wars, to be the spark that lights the fire of hope. From latchkey kids lost in faceless cities to farm boys and girls dreaming on desert planets, and everyone in between – we all need hope, as much as air or love.

And so I’ll ask you today:

What story gives you hope?

What story makes you believe that your future, THE future, will be better than the present moment?

What can you do to share that story with others?

Maybe, it’s your own story.

Thank you.