Monday, February 28, 2022

A Lesson in Forgiveness - Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar Aang


This post is going to reference some spoilers from the final season of Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA), so if you don’t want things spoiled, I would recommend at least watching through episode 3.14 (the Southern Raiders) before reading.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’m going to put in a plug for the Braving the Elements podcast from Nickelodeon. It’s not just a recap with commentary (though they do plenty of that), but Janet Varney (Avatar Korra) and Dante Bosco (Prince Zuko) along with all the guest speakers have been a delight. I loved hearing Sifu Kisu talk about the process of matching martial art styles to the various elements, and André Sogliuzzo share how he came up with the voice for King Bumi. And Jennie Kwan was fantastic! (I'm still catching up, these were some of the earliest episodes)

Anyway, when I first started planning this post, it was to be more of an overview of the lessons I took from ATLA. However, it has turned out a bit more anecdotal than I anticipated it would be. To keep this from getting overly heavy, I’m going to try and include my usual dose of wit and comedic timing, but bear with me. The whole show, but Book 3 in particular has many complex moments dealing with fairly deep subject matter. I’m going to focus on Katara’s field trip with Zuko to confront the man that killed her mother.

Aang tries to persuade her to stay and encourages her not to choose revenge:

“Katara, you do have a choice: forgiveness.”
“That’s the same as doing nothing.”
“No it’s not. It’s easy to do nothing but it’s hard to forgive.”
“It’s not just hard, it’s impossible.”

Side note: my wife and I have this little joke about the word forgiveness, and will often break out into song:

“Forgiveness is more than sayin' sorry.” (From the film Just Friends)

Anyway, Katara is still determined to go and Aang gives her some sound advice before seeing her off:

“This is a journey you need to take. You need to face this man. But when you do, please don’t choose revenge. Let your anger out, and then let it go. Forgive him.”


Long story short, Katara and Zuko find the perpetrator: a sad old man named Yan Ra who lives a depressing, menial life. If we had the chance to meet the monsters from our past, is that how it would go for us? If we were to see them today in the present, would they be the same as back then, or would we also see a great departure from what we remember them to be?

Yan Ra

Katara comments on this, saying, 

“I always wondered what kind of person could do such a thing, but now that I see you I think I understand. There’s just nothing inside you, nothing at all. You’re pathetic and sad and empty.”

A few years back, I was on a trip out east for a conference. With a few extra days on my hands, I made my way back to the small town I lived in during the second grade. I’m the nostalgic type and just wanted to see the forests and fields of my childhood. Well, I ran into someone from my past while I was there. He was what I would have considered a friend up until the moment when he tried to choke me out. My memories of the event are a bit hazy, but I remember him choking me out in a headlock when I had approached him to say goodbye since we were moving.

Obviously, this was not on the same level as a Fire Nation officer murdering an innocent woman from the Southern Water Tribe. However it was an experience of betrayal and pain that affected my self-esteem, confidence, and sense of worth throughout my life despite my unintentional repression of the event until my early twenties.


Now, I am not a Waterbender (though I probably would be a Foggy Swamp Waterbender if I were a character in the show). And I DEFINITELY wasn't on a revenge field trip with a fire-bending sidekick to help me take this guy down. It was just a seemingly random moment of providence where I had the chance to approach him face to face. Instead of ripping into him about hurting me deeply when we were kids, I just made small talk, listened, and observed. He seemed... normal? His spunky first-grader child was there riding his bicycle around the front patio, talking to me about how he had just had his first day of school, and I thought to myself who is this man? How could the monster I remember have helped bring a kind-hearted, confident boy into the world?

Back to Katara, she later tells Aang: 

“I wanted to do it, I wanted to take out all my anger at him, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because I’m too weak to do it or if it’s because I’m strong enough not to.” 

He responds: 

“You did the right thing. Forgiveness is the first step you have to take to begin healing.”


I don’t know if I’m ready to forgive that man for what he did when we were kids, but watching that episode of ATLA again made me want to try. I learned that it is a journey I need to take. I need to face this man - whether literally or figuratively. And when I do, I hope to – at least internally – let my anger out and then let it go. I want to forgive. 

- Paul

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