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On Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender

Originally written & posted elsewhere January 2022

Within the past two years I have watched Avatar: The Last Airbender in its entirety from beginning to end no less than ten times. Maybe it’s actually a lot more than that, now that I think about it... maybe more like twenty. If one were able to easily retrieve their Netflix viewing history (I don’t think they have this feature, but I could be wrong, and maybe it would be for the best if they don’t create it), the truth could be even more embarrassing, if you were the type to be embarrassed by such a thing. They would of course be able to tell that I share my account with a child based on some of the other shows that we have watched, and they might know that they are elementary school aged, and they might assume that they watch Avatar over and over again while doing other things, as if we are the kind of people who leave the television on in the background while we go about our day. I assure you that this is not the case. We watch together, critiquing every episode in detail, analyzing the story arcs of the characters, looking for parts that could be superfluous (there are very few, if any), discussing the things that we missed on any of the previous viewings (sometimes we notice small things in the background, sometimes they are more obvious). We talk about foreshadowing, metaphors, lessons in culture, in humanity. I point out the Hanzi that I can make out from reading Japanese and he recognizes borrowed words, “Oh it’s Momo, because he has a peach.” We talk about similarities between the spiritual traditions in the series that could have been inspired by traditions that we follow in our own lives. We go over it all, again and again, and each time that we find ourselves at the end, we decide that there is nothing better to watch, and so we begin again sometime after.

As I write this I have a ten year old son, but when this all began, watching Avatar during the year that we stayed inside, I had an eight year old son. It is strange to think about that now, to actually write it out; my son was eight when the pandemic started, and here we are at ten and a half, not quite stuck inside anymore, but not out of it yet either. He goes to school now, and he didn’t last year. My husband goes to work now, and he didn’t last year. But, we still don’t do things the way that we used to, and I don’t know when or if we will again any time soon. When Avatar begins, Aang is 12 years old, and at the end of the three seasons, about a year in his life later, after traveling the world, mastering the 4 elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Air), and fighting a war, he is still 12 years old, but he is a much older 12 than he was when this story began. He is still a kid, but he becomes more serious as the final battle approaches; carrying the weight of the world will do that to a person. We could look at the whole pandemic as a war of sorts, but this war is with a virus and not with a Fire Lord, and then there is a related information war, and well, I think this could go on for a while, so I will just stop there. This is just to say that our entire way of life has been uprooted, altered, and the things that are important, the things that provide meaning, have been called in to question. My son might be a much older ten year old than he was going to be had this pandemic not started at all. In some ways, in spite of all of the precautions that we have taken by sheltering indoors, distancing, and shifting our routines to protect ourselves, I think the weight of the world may have made its way inside of our home.

I am writing this because I am trying not to watch Avatar again right now. It is tempting though, because I would have a great time analyzing the portrayal of the elements from an āyurvedic perspective. Maybe I will do that another time, but right now I am writing because I am thinking about the irony of watching a show about a group of children traveling the world and learning about themselves through interacting with nature while being pretty much trapped inside. I mean, now that I have said that, I feel like I should be lamenting this “lost” time. But here we are inside of our home, and yet we can access the entirety of the world right here in our living room. Or well, the world of Avatar, at least. Aang travels the world to learn the 4 elements, and even though travel and the adventures that unfold along the way do play an important role in the growth and unfolding of his character, the real journey doesn’t actually require intense training or spiritual initiations at all. The real journey takes place on the inside. There is a deep recalling of the elements from within; a preexisting relationship is unearthed through connection with his past lives. The elements and his ability to master them are already inside of him, and it is through unraveling and dismantling the external self that Aang is able to understand this and utilize them. The critical point for Aang is not in the mastery of the elements, it is in reconciling who he is with what he is supposed to do, which is kill the Fire Lord. Aang strongly believes that it is wrong to kill anyone or anything. As a vegetarian who was raised by monks, he believes he has a responsibility to the traditions from which he comes, and going against this feels out of line with the universal order to him, in every way. Why would someone who was born to these traditions be asked to go against them so completely? He simply cannot justify this. And to make things more complicated, no one seems to understand his predicament, or his perspective on the sanctity of life. Aang is the last living Airbender on earth, his people were victims of genocide at the hands of the Fire Nation, and their cultural influence, their values, and their traditions were lost with them. There is no one in his circle who feels that the life of the Fire Lord, an individual responsible for the deaths of millions of people, is worthy of any amount of thought. When he consults with the Avatars who came before him, his past lives, even they advise that Aang kill the Fire Lord. With faith in his belief that this inborn aversion to murder is in line with a universal order and not of an egoic nature, Aang looks to the source for answers, and as is the way of true dharma, the source provides the solution to his predicament. It is a beautiful story. Everything he needs, everything the world and all of humanity needs from him, already exists within him. And through letting go of his fears and egoic attachments he is able to align with the universal truth of the self and connect with inner divinity.

As we watch Avatar I think about how these years have taught us quite a bit about things that get in the way, about letting go, and about fear. It has been a year of questionable boundaries, not really knowing what it means to be safe, what it means to connect, what is true and right for us or for the world. What dharma, or universal order, on any level, is supposed to look like. Being trapped inside has forced some of us deeper inside, perhaps before we felt ready to go on that sort of a journey. If I know anything from watching this story again and again, it is that things that force you to look fate in the eye, that alter the external reality, can do that. While my son and I watch Avatar together while the pandemic rolls on outside, I can only hope that all of the analysis, the deep diving, the small parts of the journey that we recognize from within ourselves, from our own stories, resonates with him in some way. I can only hope that when he sees that Aang has everything he needs inside of him, he recognizes this truth within himself. I have come to think that the ability to read into this at all is actually a projection of sorts, because if he can see it, it is already there, inside of him, waiting for the right time, the need, to come out. The entire world, inside of our living room.

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