The Wisdom of Avatar

Submitted by Derek Alton on November 12, 2012 - 11:51am
Three lessons to inspire us


After some insistent prodding from my siblings, I final relented to their peer pressure and watched the cartoon TV series called Avatar: The Last Airbender (unrelated to the blockbuster movie by James Cameron).

I must admit I was hooked right from the start.  The TV series was funny and entertaining, it had strong character development and at the same time gripping action sequences.  I hammered through all three seasons in two weeks.

What impressed me most about the show beyond the complexity of the character development was the depth of wisdom that came through.  I would like to take a second to explore one aspect of this wisdom that I think is particularly relevant.

In this story, the world of Avatar is split into four main communities.  Each community has the ability to control and bend one of four key elements: fire, water, air and earth.  This shared special ability brings them all together and gives then identity forming four kingdoms: the fire kingdom, the water kingdom, the air kingdom and the earth kingdom. 

Once a century a special person comes that has the ability to control all four elements.  This person called the avatar plays the role of bringing balance and harmony to the world.

The series starts with all four kingdoms out of balance; the fire kingdom has destroyed the air kingdom and is threatening the other two kingdoms which are fractured and scattered.  There is fear, mistrust, anger and hatred everywhere.  Into this situation a 12 year old boy named Aang is thrust.  Having been frozen in ice since before the conflict started, he is unaware of the violence and pain that has happened over the last hundred years.

Aang is of course the Avatar and the series follows him as he tries to figure out himself and how to play the role he has been given.


Lesson #1: We all share a common humanity

In the series, everyone is so blinded by their pain and anger that they are unable to see the humanity of the other side. 

‘That person is part of the fire nation therefore they must be destroyed because they are evil.’

What Aang discovers through his journey is the common thread that connects us all. He discovers that as humans we have far more in common with each other then we have different.

Lesson #2: Difference is a gift

Another insight that Aang discovers is that each community has its gift.  The fire nation is full of passion and energy; the water nation is all about flow and flexibility; the air nation is about play and fun; and the earth nation is about determination and perseverance.  When you connect with all of them you are able to pull from each ones strengths.

Lesson #3: We are capable of being no better than those we fight against

Throughout the series, the earth and water kingdoms emphasize the terrible atrocities that are perpetrated by the fire nation.  These people state that they would never do such terrible things to people.  Yet a couple times in the series, when given the power and opportunity, they themselves undertake atrocious behaviour, sometimes the same behaviour as those from the fire nation. 

When confronted by Aang and his friends about this the arguments used are: “an eye for an eye” and “the ends justifies the means.”

Application to today:

It is interesting because I looking at my life and the world around me, I see these truths everywhere.  One clear place where I think they hold true is in the realm of politics.

Our politics have become very ‘us vs. them,’ similar to the kingdoms in Avatar.  We identify with one party and belittle the other.  I think in the process we lose sight on the common experience and common humanity that ties us all together.  Like in war, we tend to over simplify and sometimes even dehumanize the other person, labeling them as a conservative or a liberal.  We are however, far more similar then we are different.  And the differences that do exist are a gift.    Each party and those who identify with it have a valuable perspective that they bring to the discussion.  It is important that we are open to learning from that gift instead of dismissing it.

Finally, we are quick to point out the terrible tactics of the other group, but history shows that each party is capable of doing atrocious things, and all in the name of either “an eye for an eye” or “the ends justifies the means.” I am not saying we do not stand up against injustice or atrocity, but rather that we are mindful of our own potential for the same behaviour and that this realization also opens up compassion to those who we are standing against.

Though I have applied these three principles to politics, I believe that they can be applied to any community, whether it is religion, sports or any other place where people come together.  I think if we can strive to hold these three principles in our heads as we go through life that we will all be better off for it.