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In The Empire Strikes Back (1980), we see a famous exchange between Yoda (an archetypical “wise elder” figure) and Luke Skywalker, his young apprentice. They stand in a swamp where Luke’s spaceship lies submerged after a crash landing.

LUKE: We’ll never get it out now.

YODA: So certain are you. (Sighs.) Always with you what 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.

LUKE: All right, I’ll give it a try.

YODA: No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.

Across the entire Star Wars franchise, this last line is perhaps Yoda’s most famous.

If you grew up around adults who were raised on Star Wars, you may remember that using the word “try” around them was a risky proposition. You’d get a “do or do not” retort almost immediately. Yoda’s words became a thought-terminating cliché, the effect of which was to invalidate any uncertainty, any need for guidance or clarity, any request for reassurance that may have been intended by the use of the word. Around certain people, children of the 90s were forbidden to try. We must only do. And in a gross perversion of the original context, these words could even be used to blame someone who failed at something—they must have “tried” instead of “did,” and clearly they needed to be reminded of that.

Luckily, as the years passed, the virality of “do or do not” was beaten by the immune system of time. “Try” returned to its colloquial roots (“if at first you don’t succeed” and so forth). Nobody thinks they’re clever or urbane for hitting you over the head with a Yoda quote anymore.

A word is a chance to describe something that may be important to the speaker. To bar it from the lexicon—not by moral argument but by enforcement, punishing its use with a weapon of instant negation—is to rob them of self-expression and alienate them from the conversation. There was no public debate about the word “try,” as far as I can recall. There was only the handful of years when people used a pop culture catchphrase to murder it.

We can assume the writers of Star Wars: Episode V didn’t foresee the popularity of “do or do not.” Cultural impact can rarely, if ever, be calculated ahead of time. Besides, the line seems to be a frustrated outburst on Yoda’s part, not a carefully-distilled droplet of wisdom like others in the movie.

But it clearly resonates with a lot of people. Might we find something useful in it?

Here’s one possible interpretation. In that specific context, for that specific conversation, “do or do not” serves as equal parts rebuke and encouragement. It’s not a rejection of someone’s earnest “I’ll try my best,” but of Luke’s skeptical “all right” and halfhearted “I’ll give it a try.” Yoda is asking him to commit, rather than give into the all-too-human urge to use apathy as a shield for disappointment. To give your all to something makes failure devastating; it means your best wasn’t good enough. But to give only a token effort makes failure trivial. Luke is preparing a “see, I told you so,” where Yoda’s training regimen demands “yes, master Yoda, at any cost.” Yoda wants him to try harder.

This contradicts Yoda’s literal word choice. But it’s ridiculous to take “there is no try” at face value. Of course there’s such a thing as trying. This isn’t to say “trying” is the same thing as “doing,” but it does exist. Trying is the intangible component of doing: the price of attention, willpower, or stamina that must be paid. It’s a daily emotional experience for most of us.

Still, Yoda negates it. What does he mean?

The “do or do not” sciolists of my youth must have taken him to mean that trying is worthless or meaningless or merely an excuse. This premise can only lead to one of two conclusions: either Yoda intended for Luke to master the force without any particular investment of focus or effort, or he just didn’t care to hear about it. In the first case, Yoda’s iconic line is equivalent to “why aren’t you good at this already?” and in the second, to “Stop bothering me; come back when you’ve figured everything out.” Neither of these is tenable in context of the Star Wars canon. Mastering the force is portrayed as requiring intense dedication and practice, and Jedi masters as invariably attentive to the progress of their students.

So this line of reasoning gets us nowhere. But there’s another perspective that can make sense of “there is no try.”

The “force,” that essential but poorly-defined plot device, closely resembles the “Tao” in Eastern philosophy, a term which according to tradition can’t be defined. At the same time, it has more definitions than any other term I know—books full of them. It’s described as the fundamental principle of the universe, a force which animates all things, a mode of daily living, a moral attitude, and an experiential non-concept. Strong similarities between the force and the Tao have already been noted by several other writers.

With Yoda’s admonition in mind, consider this passage from the Tao Te Ching:

Act without doing;

work without effort.

This principle is known as wu wei, which can be translated as “effortless action”—that is, “doing” without “trying.” It’s an alien notion to much of Western culture, which prizes nothing so much as displays of incredible effort. And to be fair, it’s not clear how (or if) this advice would apply to the same activities. Wu wei can also be translated as “inaction,” and the above passage has alternate translations that are very different from the one I’ve quoted here, though none of them are less strange to a Western eye. In any case, the concept of avoiding effort (which, it should be noted, is distinct from laziness) has persisted in Chinese philosophy for centuries.

According to the Tao Te Ching, wu wei in practice means going with the flow, like water; acting without haste; doing only what’s necessary, when necessary; and doing your duty without striving against prevailing trends. It’s a philosophy that loves stillness and despises busywork. In short, it’s radically incompatible with the core of modern capitalism.

Star Wars grounds this concept in vivid imagery. Young Jedi sweat and strain, but when we see old Jedi masters use the force, they demonstrate a remarkable lack of effort. Their actions are decisive but frictionless; the world around them responds without hesitation. We could put this down to experience and skill, but maybe there’s something more. Maybe something about the force is specifically compatible with an attitude of mental ease.

There’s another analogue here in the spiritual tradition of meditation. Meditating is sometimes described as the opposite of doing. To meditate, you simply stop doing everything, including thinking, thinking about not thinking, and trying to meditate. This is difficult for many of us, but the difficulty is self-imposed: whatever’s hard about it, you weren’t supposed to be doing that anyway.

If the force works the same way, it would give us a fresh look at Yoda’s statement. “There is no try” doesn’t mean trying doesn’t exist or is meaningless in general. It means that mental strain is counterproductive when it comes to controlling the force. And yet, to achieve the inner serenity that allows one to do so, most Jedi have to train their minds—a process comprising years of continual effort. The apparent paradox between requisite effort and requisite non-effort is resolved by the padawan’s struggle to find inner peace.

If we insist Yoda was saying something profound, and not just snapping at a frustrating student, this is the reading that fits best with Star Wars lore. And if we further insist on finding a nugget of meaning to take home from the theater, this is likewise the direction we must come from. “Do or do not” isn’t an indictment of “trying” itself, nor a dismissal of the fear and uncertainty that accompany a difficult venture. And it’s certainly not a way to heap blame on someone who lacks self-confidence or has already failed. Rather, it’s a piece of Jedi philosophy. “Do or do not,” because doing and not-doing are equally valid and useful. And “there is no try” because to a Jedi, effort is given in service of non-effort; if one is to master the force, they must try very hard not to try.