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Lessons Learned from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Over many bowls of congee and ice cream, I spent the past month watching Avatar: The Last Airbender.

For those unfamiliar with this animated series, I’ll offer a (very brief) synopsis here:

The Last Airbender takes place in a world in which humans have the ability to “bend”, or psycho-kinetically control, one of four elements: water, earth, fire, or air. People, nations, and even spirit-beings are divided along these elemental lines. After 100 years of war between the Fire Nation and the other three elemental sovereignties, two water tribe members find a mysterious boy in an iceberg. They later discover that he is the Avatar — a type of human reincarnate with the ability to bend all four elements. From this point on, the two Water Tribe members join the Avatar on a journey across the world for him to master the elements, defeat the Fire Nation, and restore peace to the world.

Recently, these episodes have provided me with a nostalgic escape that is normally quite difficult to find. The past month has been rough. After being diagnosed with anxiety, going through a difficult breakup, and being stuck at home away from all of my friends, I found little success through my usual sources of distraction. I tried watching movies. Other times, I went outside on long walks and listened to albums on repeat. But throughout all of these desperate attempts to escape, I found myself even more consumed by anxious or painful memories than before.

At first glance, I thought that The Last Airbender was the perfect distraction. Each 20-ish minute episode is filled to the brim with action-packed yet light-hearted adventures. And they almost always have a happy ending. Characters still experience loss, pain, and grief, but these experiences usually fade away before they unsettle the viewer. This show was made for children, after all. For each time that a character experiences real suffering, there were probably even more times that Momo, the Avatar’s adorable flying lemur, humorously attempts (and fails) to catch and eat a creature on screen.

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Amidst The Last Airbender’s chaotic fun, I found solace in one character in particular: Uncle Iroh. This MAN is introduced as a neutralizer of sorts to his troubled nephew Zuko — a banished fire nation prince. In the past, Iroh also faced punishment for failing his country; after abandoning a siege of the Earth Kingdom’s capital due to the loss of his son, he was stripped of his birthright to the Fire Nation’s throne.

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Having endured both losses only two years before the events in the series, it was wondrous to me that Iroh holds such a carefree perspective. As he travels across the world with Zuko, he relishes in hedonistic endeavors. He bathes in hot springs, sings and dances to music, and seeks out exotic teas. He even flirts with women. You wouldn’t guess that only a few years ago, he lost his only son and sole position of power. At a certain point, the uncle-nephew pair become traitors of the Fire Nation, forced to seek refuge in the Earth Kingdom, where they are also fugitives. When Zuko ruminates over the bleakness of their situation, Iroh remarks: “Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”

As I watched the show in bed, wrapped in blankets, proverbs such as this one hit me with doses of reality exactly when I was trying to escape it. I realized that, like Zuko, I often submerge myself in defeat when foundational aspects of my everyday life appear to be slipping away from me. And, even when I make conscious efforts to cope with these changes, I usually grip onto shame and resentment for simply being in these situations. Like him, I funnel these negative feelings into external objectives. Make new friends. Eat more food and exercise. Stop being anxious. Capture the Avatar. In truth, achieving these things may very well refill holes in my life but they neglect the rooted patterns causing self-loathing in the first place.

Beyond this loveable, tea-drinking personality, I’ve realized that there is another side to Iroh — a side that mourns his son — seeking to replace this lost source of affection with his nephew. After Zuko leaves on his own, Iroh follows shortly behind to protect him. In a conversation with Toph, a girl that later accompanies the Avatar, she suggests that he too depends on Zuko, albeit for emotional rather than physical security.

At this point, it becomes obvious that Iroh has not completely grieved his son’s death. Yet he is not bereaved by it either. Initially, I was confused by this duality. Can a person enjoy life so unabashedly before fully coping with their losses? Western society’s teachings and my past attempts at doing so suggest otherwise. But to Iroh, the processes of celebration and mourning flow together. They are harmonious variations of one tune. This becomes quite literal as he performs the following song:

Leaves from the vine

Falling so slow

Like fragile, tiny shells

Drifting in the foam

Little soldier boy

Come marching home

Brave soldier boy

Comes marching home

Iroh initially sings this lullaby to cheer up a boy he finds crying on a street. The next time that he performs it, he does so under a tree at sunset in memory of his son. Both times, Iroh connects to the world as an extension of his grief. They are ways of transferring his love to the present rather than letting it fester in the past.

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It’s been exactly a month now since I began watching The Last Airbender, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect these revelations to come from a cartoon man who shoots fire out of his hands (and mouth). Now, instead of ruminating over my misfortunes, I let myself live life in full. I try things that my past self would undoubtedly disapprove of. He would probably say that I am moving on too fast, that I am leaving some internal dilemmas unresolved, and my time would be better spent writing pages of reflections. But inside, I know that even I can’t sit alone with these feelings of regret, loss, and shame and expect them to disappear.

In the past, I knew that I couldn’t live without grieving. But in doing so, I forgot that I also couldn’t grieve without living. Like Iroh, I find manifestations of pain in the ways that I interact with the world. I find it in the way that my chest tightens when my dad and I hug. The smell of tea or the euphoria of scream-singing in the car. Or how my heart softens when I say “I love you” to friends. Sometimes, these expressions of grief alone are relieving, and other times they are quite triggering. But these reactions ebb and flow, as a friend told me, and they lessen over time. Now, I understand that I cannot erase the past or completely change the present. Still, I find comfort knowing that I can transfer this pain into love for the world that I live in now.

Apex, North Carolina. 6/14/20

Sophomore at Duke University

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