[This article contains spoilers].
In my pursuit of excellent animated television, my friends constantly recommended that I watch “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. The premise: a twelve-year-old boy named Aang is burdened with the task of restoring order to a world divided by war. Fortunately, he is blessed with powers of strength that make this more achievable, but as we move through the show we see that physical power is useless without wisdom and mental strength.
I will probably watch, re-watch, and contemplate this show for a very long time due to its breadth, its masterful execution, and general entertainment. However today I find that its most important takeaway is the recurring theme of forgiveness. Aang realizes that every person, including himself, is capable of tremendous acts of good or horrendous acts of evil.
The character Zuko is one example of someone who undergoes a complete transformation. At the beginning of the show, we see a person consumed by hate and rage that is used to destroy lives. In a pursuit to validate his self-worth, Zuko sets out to capture Aang, believing that this achievement will complete him. By the end of the series, Zuko realizes piece by piece how deluded he is. At one point he discovers how lost he has become and becomes physically sick because of the internal conflict within him. He struggles to figure out if the internal vision of himself, a hardened expert meant to destroy his enemies, aligns with who he actually is.
Zuko eventually comes to the conclusion that in order to be true to himself and what he has learned on his journey, he must join Aang and his cause instead of destroying him. Zuko, no longer as powerful as he once was after his transformation, finds himself trying to awkwardly apologize for everything he has done to Aang and his friends. Other characters find it very difficult to accept Zuko’s apology, since he is responsible for the murders of so many of their friends and family. Through a harrowing, hard-to-watch effort in demonstrating how he has changed, Aang and his friends eventually find a way to forgive him. This forgiveness ends up being an incredible choice, since it allows Zuko to grow into one of the wisest and most noble characters by the end of the show (which is saying something since he started out as such a little shit).
This is one of the stories that I need to hear, and one that gives me hope as I struggle with reconciling with my own mistakes. I often find myself trapped into thinking that I messed up so much that I am doomed to failure, but when I reach out to my friends they tell me that the best thing that I can do is to learn from my mistakes rather than punish myself for them. Like Zuko, I sometimes get tricked into thinking that a life well-lived is defined in great achievements. While this is true, the achievements are not on an external scale, but rather an internal one. Zuko’s grand achievements are with dealing with the war inside himself, which in turn equips him more fully for the war he faces in front of him.
Finishing “Avatar: The Last Airbender” left me with a peculiar feeling in my heart. It was a kind of pain, but not an empty one. It made me ache for all of my shortcomings, but in a way that opened me up to the idea of growth.