Philosophies & Lessons from ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ That Are Guiding Me in 2023
Arinze’s Weekly features weekly musings about life and career by a questioning Afro Gen Z. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here ⬇️
In 2022, I went through what I realised, later on, was high-functioning depression.
For the first time in my life, I truly felt like every opportunity in the world was open to me, but I couldn’t discern which path I should follow or which opportunity I should take. The choice overload overwhelmed me to the point of decision paralysis as I found myself at what felt like a crossroads in my life without knowing which way was right. So I stood still.
Amidst all that chaos, I was building a media company and completing a rigorous master’s degree as a 23-year-old gay man living in a foreign country where my very identity was illegal.
Casual Tuesday, I guess.
One of the things that held me down during the emotional hurricane of a year that 2022 turned out to be was ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender,’ (Avatar TLA), a show I rewatch without fail at least once a year. But in 2022, it felt different. I couldn’t stop rewatching the show. In 2022, I watched all 61 episodes of the show at least 12 times. Crazy right? I know. But in all those rewatches, I found enough wisdom and insight to finally continue an article titled “My Accidental Masterclass on Life with 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'” that I’d started writing back in 2020.
That article ended up becoming this story you’re reading.
This story is my tribute to the Avatar TLA franchise that’s come to mean a lot to me + a distillation of 11 of the 17 powerful life lessons (yes, I kept 6 of them to myself 🤣) I learnt from my manic rewatch of the show in 2022 that are guiding me in 2023.
I hope you find something here that speaks directly to you. Here are the lessons:
1 • You create your own destiny
In the Avatar TLA series, Prince Zuko spent most of his time obsessing over his inherited destiny—to capture and defeat the Avatar. This was a mission that started with his great-grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin, then was passed on to his grandfather, Fire Lord Azulon, who also passed the mission on to his son, Fire Lord Ozai—the main antagonist in the show.
Later in the series, after travelling through the different nations while hunting down the Avatar, Prince Zuko saw firsthand the evil that his own nation, under the leadership of his father, had wrought. With the guidance of General Iroh and after several bouts of moral and existential crises, Zuko finally decides to take his destiny into his own hands. He ditches the camp of his father in a dramatic scene where Prince Zuko redirects lightning at Fire Lord Ozai, who’d initially intended to kill Zuko with that strike. By choosing to use his skills to train the Avatar and restore balance to the world, Prince Zuko finally realises his true destiny—to become Lord of the Fire Nation and friend to the Avatar.
The Lesson: Destiny is a funny thing. Some of us grow up thinking we are destined to be a particular way or do a particular thing due to the different expectations or abilities we were ‘born with’. But when we free ourselves from the burden and boredom of a ‘preordained path,’ only then do we position ourselves to truly live for ourselves and, in the process, discover our true destinies.
2 • Greatness isn’t always loud
General Iroh is easily one of the most powerful benders in the Avatar series. But he only revealed the fullness of his power later on in the series. Around the beginning of the show, Iroh is portrayed as a failed tea-loving general who couldn’t capture the great city of Ba Sing Se, and now simply tags along with his exiled nephew, Prince Zuko, who seeks to capture the Avatar. General Iroh also occasionally serves as the voice of reason that keeps Zuko balanced.
Only later do we learn he’s not only a legendary firebender who was taught the secret of firebending by dragons themselves but also a Grand Lotus, i.e. the leader of the powerful secret society—The Order of the White Lotus—that exists to maintain balance in the world. A similar situation is observed with Toph. She was introduced into the series as “the blind bandit” who, based on her appearance alone, would appear anything but intimidating...until she’s challenged to a fight. How could a blind girl be the most powerful earthbender and one of the teachers of the Avatar? Toph Beifong did that.
The Lesson: Sometimes, the truly powerful people are not the loud ones who make a big show of their abilities. In the professional world, they may not be the ones with the nerdy glasses and star-studded resumes that make their loud opinions seem legit. The actual top people could be the quiet ones who appear very unassuming until their skills are put to the test, then they show the stuff they’re truly made of. Greatness exists quietly all around us, if we have the patience to notice.
3 • The journey is just as important as the destination
When Team Avatar (the collective name for the Avatar and his friends, who were also his teachers) were on their way to Omashu, they met a band of musicians who took them through the labyrinth that Oma and Shu, the founders of the city of Omashu, created to meet secretly at a time when their love was a crime.
Team Avatar was reluctant to follow them on that path because of the danger of being lost in the labyrinth but, by going through the labyrinth, they got to have the invaluable experiences of meeting the badgermoles that trained Toph while Aang and Katara confronted an awkwardness in their relationship that they needed to in order to process the feelings they were developing for each other. At the end of the episode, Chong, one of the members of the music band, left Team Avatar with the words:
“I hope you learned a little something about not letting the plans get in the way of the journey.”
This lesson stayed with Team Avatar till the very end.
The Lesson: Expect your plans to be assaulted with events and experiences that distort your plans and force you to recalibrate. Plan with that in mind. Be ready to sacrifice the destination for the sake of the journey, so long as you remain true to a set of principles you define for yourself. For Team Avatar, they set out for Omashu but found a deeper connection. Make your 2023 journey a good story.
4 • Challenges are opportunities for invention and triumph
Two of the most powerful bending techniques in the Avatar TLA series were invented during periods of extreme pain and anguish. Trapped in a fire nation prison with the last waterbenders from the Southern Water Tribe, Hama invented bloodbending, a dangerous waterbending technique that allows waterbenders to take full control of their subjects by bending the water flowing through them—blood, water, and everything else liquid.
Kidnapped and locked in a metallic cage, far out of reach from the nearest piece of rock or earth to bend, Toph, the “blind bandit”, invented metalbending, a more advanced earthbending technique that bent metal, one of the purest forms of earth. Hama and Toph found it within themselves to rise above themselves at a time when most people would have folded and given into their fate. That stubbornness to submit to the challenges they were confronted with is what made Hama and Toph go down in history as bending legends.
The Lesson: The ability to turn difficulties into opportunities is the secret ability of the ‘greats’. Everyone is assaulted with challenges unique to their circumstances. We all have internal and external devils we must defeat before we can materialise our fullest potential, but only few have the courage and discipline required to create their own greatness in spite of great challenges. Those are the greats.
5 • Having a master is the cheat code to growth
Everyone on Team Avatar was trained by some of the best. That’s how they themselves became some of the best. Team Avatar only became masters of their craft after having been tutored by other masters.
Katara only mastered waterbending after she learnt from Pakku, a master waterbender from the Northern Water Tribe. Toph Beifong only became an earthbending master after she was taught by the blind badgermoles, who are themselves the original earthbenders. Zuko had to learn from General Iroh and then the dragons to reach true firebending mastery. Sokka had to learn combat from the Kiyoshi Warriors, some of the most skilled warriors, and swordsmanship from Master Piandao, a non-bender member of the Order of the White Lotus. Avatar Aang himself had to learn from several masters about everything from bending to resolving conflict and compartmentalising emotions.
The Lesson: In our attempt to learn a new skill, there’s only so much we can learn on our own. The real secrets that lead to mastery are more quickly revealed by someone who has mastered the very craft we’re trying to learn. This might be why we need mentors who can provide tutelage, connections, and guidance to us because they believe in our ability to reach and exceed our potential.
6 • Only the humble can be taught
When Sokka approached the gates of Master Piandao, a revered swordsman, to be trained in the art of swordsmanship so that he could feel more useful to Team Avatar, he was faced with a question. He was asked to prove why he was worthy to be trained by the master. When Piandao’s butler met Sokka at the gate, he was visibly unimpressed by Sokka’s plain appearance and was so convinced Piandao won’t accept Sokka as his pupil that as he let Sokka in, he muttered “Let’s get this over with.”
When Piandao asked Sokka why he thought himself worthy to be taught by him, Sokka admitted that he didn’t know if he was worthy to be Piandao’s pupil because of his background. Only then did Piandao agree to train Sokka as he told him: “Well, let’s find out together if you’re worthy.” Sokka didn’t come to Piandao to boast of his achievements, which, no matter how great they are, would’ve most likely paled in comparison to Piandao’s. Instead, Sokka came as an empty cup to be poured into. That’s what made him teachable. That’s what made him worthy of being the Piandao-trained master swordsman he evolved into.
The Lesson: Intellectual hubris prevents learning. When we convince ourselves that we already know, we block off our ability to take in new information. It’ll feel pointless to us to be taught or teach ourselves something we think we already know. It’s important to remain teachable so that we can position ourselves in the path of consistent growth.
7 • Transformation is a rocky, painful, disorienting process
From the moment Aang came out of the iceberg, beginning his journey as the Avatar, he found himself thrown from one level of Hell to the next, constantly having to battle himself, his previous selves, his friends, his enemies, and his values. The incessant barrage of conflict and fighting was a frustrating experience for Aang who simply wanted peace and happy times for the people he loved and the world at large. But amidst all of the chaos, we saw Aang evolve. Each negative experience he faced was necessary for him to become the kind of Avatar he became—one whose commitment to fairness and aversion to violence inspired generations after him. He was transformed through the rocky, painful, disorienting experiences he had to go through while being motivated by the cheerful, love-filled experiences that gave him more reasons to keep improving, fighting, and growing.
The Lesson: Amor Fati. Not merely to bear what is necessary, but love it. Those words are engraved on the pendant I wear around my neck. They remind me of the stories of people like Aang who submit to the process of transformation by accepting the confusion, uncertainty, and discomfort that come with growth in their field—in the process, becoming fully-realised versions of themselves.
Want to get stories like this every week? 🤗
8 • Forgiveness, not vengeance, leads to healing
Katara was one the first characters we were introduced to in the Avatar TLA series. She’s a divisive character in the sense that Avatar TLA fans either love her for her groundedness or dislike her for her preachiness. But one thing all Avatar TLA fans respect Katara for is her decision at the end of the show to forgive Yon Rha, the very man who killed her mother during a fire nation raid of the Southern Water Tribe when Katara was but a baby.
Granted, Katara may have decided differently if not for the last-minute word of advice from Avatar Aang, who counselled:
“Revenge is like a two-headed rat viper. While you watch your enemy go down, you're being poisoned yourself…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.”
In that moment, faced with the most difficult decision she ever had to make, Katara chose the harder path—forgiveness. Thanks to Aang, she realised that revenge on Yon Rha wouldn’t have brought her the peace she wanted. She learnt that revenge never does.
The Lesson: In our lives, people are bound to offend us. It’s an inevitable part of life that we must expect. But in our journey towards lasting peace, we’re better off forgiving ourselves and others who offend us because revenge only offers temporary solutions to permanent problems. Healing begins when we focus on treating our wounds instead of going out to pick more fights while being battered and bruised ourselves.
9 • A thin line separates genius from insanity
Two of the craziest characters in the Avatar series are King Bumi and Princess Azula. King Bumi was the eccentric, centenarian king of the Earth city of Omashu who was friends with Aang back when they were kids, a hundred years ago from when Aang emerged from the iceberg to end the century-long war. His eccentricity often came across as insanity at first glance. Who in their right mind will hold their friend’s friends hostage, making said friend go through three deadly challenges just to nudge their friend to remember their name, right?
On the contrary, Bumi was a bonafide genius, seeing insight to problems even the Avatar couldn’t grapple with (remember: when he chose to remain imprisoned by fire soldiers as he bided his time to take his kingdom back). Azula, on the other hand, presents herself as a poise, articulate princess at first glance. But as we learn through the show, she is almost clinically deranged. Her ‘insanity’ as well as her prodigious firebending talent were well documented throughout the show, painting the accurate picture of Azula as a tormented genius who tilted towards madness due to the trauma she experienced from her mother disappearing while she was a child and compounded by the lovelessness she felt so deeply in her life.
The Lesson: Insanity mimics genius just as much as genius mimics insanity. It’s important to be able to tell the difference to not fall prey to the ‘halo effect’ of people who are experts as passing for geniuses while being nothing more than articulate ticking time bombs waiting to go off.
10 • You don’t need to be special to be valuable
In Book 3 of the series, Sokka, the only non-bending member of Team Avatar, went through a mini existential crisis because he felt useless compared to his friends Toph, Katara, and Aang, who were all master benders. He felt that all he brought to the team was good jokes. There was truth to that, as Sokka remains the most loved member of Team Avatar by the franchise’s fans. But Sokka actually brought a lot more. He was the mastermind behind a lot of the strategies that Team Avatar used in their battles and he was also the architect of the impossibly strict training schedule that Avatar Aang followed to have been able to achieve mastery of all four elements in only a few months versus the decades that most previous Avatars spend learning all the elements. Even with his jokes, Sokka was the glue that held Team Avatar together through his humour, wit, and compassion. Despite being a non-bender, Sokka brought value to Team Avatar that none of the other members who, despite being powerful benders in their own right, still never could.
The Lesson: You have all the resources at your disposal to be create the life that you want. Put another way: with the gifts you've been given, you can make your own Heaven. Rely on your own abilities and commit to being the kind of person who consistently creates value, impact, and growth for themselves and others around them.
11 • The war between good and evil rages within each of us
The moral tug-of-war in Avatar TLA is personified by Avatars Aang and Roku on the side of good and Fire Lord Sozin and Prince Zuko on the side of evil. They push and pull each other and their principles throughout the show. However, Roku, as virtuous as he was, remained flawed by his overlooking of the poison of Sozin’s ambition for the sake of their friendship, while Zuko, characterised by his vitriol, was redeemed by his renouncement of his father and his emergence as Aang’s firebending teacher. The writers of the show used the stories of these four men to show us that each of us is capable of great good and great evil. It all just comes down to the choices we make and our willingness to unlearn the things we think we know about ourselves and our lives.
The Lesson: A lot of our life is shaped by the decisions we make. We may never be faced with decisions as great as those Avatars Aang and Roku had to face in their quests to maintain balance in the world, but we’re constantly being faced with challenges that demand us to make moral choices. In those moments, it’s important to take a step back, recognise the quality of each option, and choose the side of good, even when it’s hard and unpopular.
Which lesson here resonated the most with you? ⬇️
Let me know in the comments