Lord Voldemort, Hannibal Lecter, The Joker. Movies are filled with memorable villains who captivate us with their depictions of humanity’s most evil tendencies. Perhaps one of the most iconic villains of all is Darth Vader—more machine than man, twisted and evil, according to Obi Wan Kenobi. No doubt, Vader’s legacy will be seen in The Force Awakens, the newest addition to the Star Wars franchise that premiered in Los Angeles on December 14 and will appear in theatres nationwide on December 18.
Despite Darth Vader’s legacy as an icon of evil, his son, Luke Skywalker, believed there was still some good in him. In “Darth Vader, Carl Rogers, and Self-Organizing Wisdom,” Arthur Bohart’s chapter from Humanity’s Dark Side: Evil, Destructive Experience, and Psychotherapy, this recognition on Luke’s part is highlighted as a great example of the person-centered perspective in psychotherapy. Largely derived from the seminal work of Carl Rogers, the person-centered perspective acknowledges that no one is fundamentally good or evil. Rather, everyone has the capacity for both morally positive and negative actions. Whether an individual tends to be more or less moral overall can depend on one key motive: actualizing tendency.
Actualizing tendency, according to Bohart (2013), “is the tendency of the organism to maintain and enhance itself” (p. 59) and is influenced by that organism’s environment. Think of biological evolution and how a species will adapt genetic traits that are most favorable to its surroundings, thus increasing its likelihood to survive. Humans also adapt their thoughts and behaviors to their surroundings as a survival mechanism, but they can do so in morally positive or negative directions.
Carl Rogers saw the actualizing tendency as key component of person-centered therapy. He and the psychologists who have continued his work believe that everyone is capable of self-organizing wisdom, which is the ability to “adapt to life problems creatively and productively in a manner that takes into account the wishes and needs of others” (p. 63). In other words, people can create positive, prosocial change for themselves and adapt to their environment in a wise manner. Person-centered therapists capitalize on this inherent ability by empathizing with their clients, acknowledging their feelings and potential for good, holding them in positive regard, and helping them along a path towards self-healing.
In his chapter, Bohart wonders what it would be like if the Rebel Alliance was able to plant a person-centered therapist on the Death Star to speak with Darth Vader. After presenting a hypothetical dialogue between the two, Bohart says:
We could imagine Darth Vader beginning to open up to implicit and long-forsaken aspects of his personality, to begin to see the broader picture, to begin to incorporate new aspects of his experience into his ideas. He might begin to question his constructs, such as those imposed by the Emperor, he might begin to balance his desires for power and revenge with a more deeply human side. He might actually begin to move toward discovering the “good” in him. (p. 66)
If Anakin Skywalker had gone into therapy with Carl Rogers before joining the Dark Side, Darth Vader may have never come into existence. Anakin could have been a symbol of good, having resisted the rise of the Empire a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Bohart, A. C. (2013). Darth Vader, Carl Rogers, and self-organizing wisdom. In A. C. Bohart, B. S. Held, E. Mendelowitz, & K. J. Schneider (Eds.), Humanity’s dark side: Evil, destructive experience, and psychotherapy (pp. 57–76). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/13941-003