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Obi-Wan Kenobi Fights the Phantom Depression

How do self-compassion and forgiveness transcend depression to find a new hope?

Key points

  • Depression alters not only mood but also cognitions.
  • Clouded by depressive ruminations, people may have difficulty understanding or recognizing the very things that might make them feel better.
  • Forgiveness, including self-forgiveness, can ameliorate some depressive ruminations.
Travis Langley
Source: Travis Langley

The Disney+ streaming series Obi-Wan Kenobi opens with the legendary Jedi hero living isolated, withdrawn, and depressed. Once a bright, shining hero actively involved in Jedi efforts to help others, guide new learners, and pursue democratic ideals, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, in the role first portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness) has retreated to the desert planet of Tatooine, where he carries on a drab, monotonous existence.

Ostensibly there to keep an eye on young Luke Skywalker (Grant Feely) from afar, he plods through one day after another by working as a spam miner and talking to nearly no one. His routine existence varies little until an emergency message draws the now-reluctant hero back into the adventuring life in order to rescue another child.

Arguments might be made that he suffers from dysthymic disorder (mild but persistent and intrusive depression) because he does not openly demonstrate his suffering at the story's beginning, or posttraumatic stress disorder because these problems follow the traumatic events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

However, a more fitting diagnosis would seem to be major depressive disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2022) because of how far his hopelessness and self-recrimination have taken him from the lively man he used to be. Subsequent episodes reveal more about how far he has fallen into his unhappy state.

Obi-Wan grieves not only for the people who have been slain by Imperials and Sith but also for the collective loss of Jedi history and ideals. He feels as though he has even lost himself. His self-concept, enmeshed in Jedi status and institution, has shattered. He has trouble drawing power from the Force less from the lack of practice than because he has lost confidence in himself. The most important values that drove Kenobi in his younger days now elude the middle-aged Jedi Knight's thinking.

Guilt wracks him. Survivor guilt, blaming oneself for having survived when others did not (Bergman et al., 2017; McClatchy et al., 2009; Monaghan et al., 1979; Saldinger et al., 2003; Trozzi & Dixon, 2006), fails to encompass the range of things for which he feels guilty. He blames himself for not having seen the dangers that allowed the Empire to rise, for having trained Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), who turns traitor and becomes the villainous Darth Vader (voiced once more by James Earl Jones), and for having defeated his apprentice in combat and left him for dead on Mustafar. Kenobi blames himself for everything having gone so wrong for his comrades, allies, friends, and everyone they'd ever tried to help.

Calling himself "Ben" does not simply involve assuming an alias to help him hide from the Empire. Were that the case, no one would know his surname either. No, Ben Kenobi feels undeserving of his Jedi name, unworthy of "Master Obi-Wan." Haunted by failure, brooding Ben plods through existence. Depression is the phantom that menaces him and keeps him from seeing the more "Force ghost" of his most optimistic mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson).

The mission to rescue 10-year-old Leia Organa (Vivien Lyra Blair) from Reva Sevander (Moses Ingram) and then to help rebels evade Darth Vader helps to reawaken Kenobi's inner hero. First, he learns that Anakin Skywalker lives on as the Sith Lord Vader, and later, he feels one weight of guilt eased when Vader takes full responsibility for his descent into the dark side: "You didn't kill Anakin Skywalker. I did."

Toward the end of the show's final episode, after Vader buries his former Jedi Master in rubble, Kenobi must let go of emotional weights so that he may literally lift boulders to unburden himself and break free. Simply recalling the reasons to fight Vader is insufficient. Thoughts of young Leia and Luke, two embodiments of hope for the future, help him reconnect with his core values, the deeper reasons for doing the right thing. Opposing evil is not enough without also promoting what's good. Vader misconstrues Kenobi's greatest strength, that of compassion, for lingering weakness.

The hero must forgive himself before he can forgive others (see Çolak & Güngör, 2021; Miyagawa & Taniguchi, 2020; Woodyatt & Wenzel, 2020). Leaving Vader behind, Kenobi returns to the planet Tatooine, where he finds someone else now collapsing under the weight of guilt. Reva, who has been the series' driving antagonist arguably more than Darth Vader, now remembers some of her earliest values and cannot bring herself to hurt the boy Luke.

Just as one 10-year-old's abduction drew Obi-Wan Kenobi out of isolation, another 10-year-old's innocence snaps Reva into her epiphany. She worries that she has become too much like Darth Vader, that she had descended into the kind of evil that once murdered her peers and left her for dead when she was a child. Kenobi offers words of solace and lets Reva go. A new and long journey begins for Reva as she starts the struggle with her guilt.

Depression alters not only mood but also cognitions. Thoughts clouded by depressive ruminations (Maslej et al., 2020) may have difficulty understanding or recognizing the very things that might make us feel better. Forgiveness, including self-forgiveness, can ameliorate some such ruminations (Çolak & Güngör, 2021; Miyagawa & Taniguchi, 2020; Toussaint et al., 2022; Wu et al., 2019). Self-compassion heals. Once he is no longer overwhelmed by his phantom guilt, Ben Kenobi, in the end, heads off to embark on new adventures, with some guidance from a more hopeful ghost that he is now ready to perceive.


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