It’s been about 5 months since everything started shutting down. For many around the world, there is still no end in sight. For others things are still only getting worse. During this time, Avatar: The Last Airbender came to US Netflix to serve as an escape from dreadful reality for many.
The animation ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon, the brainchild of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. It has earned plaudits for its rich worldbuilding and character development. Case in point: has there ever been a better redemption arc than Zuko’s?
The show explores complex themes including as imperialism, justice, and female empowerment – all still relevant today. Perhaps this is why the show is so gripping even when we watch it back as adults. It also delivers plenty of wisdom that we can draw from in our non-fantasy, non-bending lives. Today we remind ourselves of a handful:
Sometimes you must take the first step, even if the road ahead is unclear.
– How can we abandon hope? It is all we have.
– Hope isn’t going to get us to Ba Sing Se.
At the midway of season 2 (and the series as a whole), all the characters converge on the great Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se. But they get there in different ways. For Aang and co, they must traverse the treacherous Serpent’s Pass with a refugee family. At the trailhead, they are greeted with a despondent sign telling travellers to abandon hope.
Hope is a wonderful notion to have. It can carry one through dark times. When lockdown began, radio stations around Europe played You’ll Never Walk Alone, reminding people to “walk on with hope in your heart.” However, the beautiful lyrics leave another message unsaid: to make it through the lyrical storm, one has to dig deep and start walking. Aang vocalizes that in this moment.
We’re currently facing uncertainty like never before. While it is important to hope for better days, it is just as necessary to just take that first step. Apply for that first job, start learning that new skill, pack for that move, even if you doubt the feasibility of your goals.
Keep on going.
Eventually, Fire Princess Azula captured both Katara and Zuko, leading to a team-up between the Gaang and Zuko’s uncle, Iroh. As Aang and Iroh wander dark, underground tunnels insearch of their loved ones, the young avatar ends up venting his frustrations. The ever-patient Iroh responds with this advice:
“Even if you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, if you keep moving, you will come to a better place.”
…at which point they find the glowing crystal catacombs.
Again, not seeing the light at the end feels a lot like what we’re going through right now. If the Serpent’s Pass was about getting started, the dark unending tunnels beneath Ba Sing Se were about pushing on when there is no end in sight. As Gerry Marsden’s beautiful voice sings, “walk on, walk on.” When the lyrical storm finally turns into the golden sky, you’ll be there to see it.
It’s OK to receive help.
Toph was a breakthrough character on Avatar. She was funny, kicked serious butt, and invented metalbending. Oh, and she did all that while being blind.
Toph was never ashamed of her disability. Rather, she turned it around by honing her other senses through earthbending. However, her parents’ stifling coddling had given her a stubborn ‘myself against the world’ attitude. This caused her to butt heads with the Gaang every now and then. At one point, she left the group and ran into good ol’ Iroh who offered her tea and wisdom:
“There is nothing wrong with letting people who love you help you.”
(Or, to keep up the gag, you don’t have to walk alone.)
Throughout the series, we see her open up to her friends, letting them help and protect her. Many people point out the final airship battle, where Sokka guards her from falling projectiles (she can’t sense things in the air via earthbending). But there are smaller moments before that, such as Katara helping her aim at buzzard wasps in ‘The Desert’. That’s one thing Avatar does so well – every small detail leads to something. Nothing is there by coincidence.
Expand your worldview.
“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale…It is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful. But, it can make you more powerful too.”
Oh Iroh, the great sage. One of Avatar’s most memorable plot lines is Zuko learning to redirect lightning from his uncle. Before teaching the technique, Iroh notes that he developed the move through studying waterbenders. He also makes a point that even though they may only bend one element, knowing the values and philosophies of all four nations can be extremely beneficial.
Reviewers have pointed out that Zuko eventually adopted movement idioms from all four bending styles, and used them in his final battle with Azula. Others have discussed how Sokka, a non-bender, learned combat styles and tactics from all four nations through the course of the series. At the start of the series, both these characters wanted to represent and serve their home nations. Unspoken developments like this reflected their character growth.
Iroh’s words can be an analogy for listening to different perspectives and keeping an open mind. We can always learn from our differences.
For those who have already binged the series (perhaps multiple times, like me), I have good news for you. The series’ sequel, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, just arrived on Netflix. There are also a host of comics strips about the Gaang during missing moments and after the finale.
(featured image: Nickelodeon via The New York Times)