Tag Archives: ATAL

Q&A: Looking for A Man to Die for All the Wrong Reasons

kradeiz said to howtofightwrite: I just read your ‘Emotions are not a Weakness’ post and found it very illuminating, especially its analysis of ATLA’s themes of enlightenment and martial arts. I was curious, at one point you say, “Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of ATLA is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.” Going off the themes the series was trying to convey, what might’ve been a more appropriate way for Aang to stop the Firelord?

By living up to the Airbender’s ideals and philosophies of pacifism, using that genuine optimism and hope for change to break the cycle of destruction. Remember, Aang is supposed to be the setting’s version of the Dalai Lama and Baguazhang is a martial art dedicated to introspection, peace, and seeking enlightenment through harmony between body and spirit.

Think of Luke Skywalker throwing aside his lightsaber at the end of Return of the Jedi, facing the Emperor and saying, “I’m not going to fight you.”

As the Dalai Lama says, “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.”

Mastery in the martial arts is not the mastery of techniques, but mastery of the self. You reach a point where you can no longer just focus on the techniques themselves, but their use and their purpose in the world. You must consider yourself, who you become when you use them, and the affect they have on others. In the real world, you will eventually be forced to face the consequences of your own actions. Not just your suffering, but the pain you inflict on others both intended and unintended. Martial training gives you real power and control over your environment, and, in the face of grief and suffering, will ultimately teach you how powerless you really are.

Upfront, violence often seems like a great solution to your problems. However, you quickly learn its only good for short term solutions and causes more problems than it solves through unintended consequences. You can go to war for the right reasons, but war creates an endless cycle of more war. Pain and suffering, anger, fear, and hatred breed more in others, including the desire to inflict their own suffering back on you. In the small globe, this is how children who are abused grow up to become abusers. We put this thirst for vengeance, control, and power on the large scale by many people who have experienced the same thing, who want the same thing, and who go out to get it. “I need to make them hurt like I’ve been hurt.”

You can win battles, but not forever. You can win the war, but not forever. You have until the next generation grows up or your enemy rebuilds their forces, and then the cycle begins again.

The discussion of how you should behave when you have this power has birthed thousands of philosophies in both the East and the West dedicated to responsible use of force. This discussion is the central focus of many martial arts adventure narratives because our response to the journey, what we learn through our successes and failures is the crux of truly attaining wisdom.

One of the most common themes of the martial arts adventure is the great warrior becoming the great sage. Through the adversity he faces and the suffering he witnesses (and causes), the warrior comes to the realization that violence no matter one’s intention merely contributes to more violence and that the means of achieving lasting change comes from changing hearts.

“I cannot control who others choose to be, only myself.”

Aang as the Avatar with his mystical spiritual powers should have a means of reaching Ozai and give him the opportunity to change where no one else can. He could find the Fire Lord, together with Zuko and Iroh, and bring him to face with the harm he’s caused. The harm he’s spent his life insulated from. Aang never seeks to understand the human in the evil, what drove Ozai to murder his father, steal his brother’s birthright, drive away his wife, to abuse his children. Aang never sees himself in Ozai, sees in him the dark mirror of what he could become and what he has personally done which echoes the Fire Lord’s own behavior.

There are shades of Ozai in Aang because there are shades of Ozai in all of us. Who we are is not determined by what we are, nor by the place in society to which we are born, but in who we’ve chosen to be.

The Dalai Lama says, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Pacifism takes real strength because kindness and compassion are easy to pay lip service to, but difficult in practice. Not harming those who’ve hurt you, seeking to understand them even as you hold them accountable is difficult. To not say, “it’s okay for me, but not you” and instead say, “it’s not okay, period” is hard. Approaching the world openly and honestly, seeking to see clearly even in the face of disappointment, pain, and prejudice is difficult.

We see Aang pay lip service to the ideals, but when push comes to shove he abandons them in favor of lashing out at the world around him. An example is the Sand Benders after stealing his flying bison Appa, Aang loses his head and attacks them. He drives away the people who hurt him, first destroying their sand barges (their means of surviving in the desert) and then enters the Avatar State to punish them some more all at the cost of finding Appa more quickly. Lashing out in violence to punish someone for hurting you feels good, but ultimately the one who truly suffers for Aang’s choice is Appa himself.

(The realization of the consequences of his actions in this case is not a plot point in Avatar leading to self-reflection and eventual change, but an excuse to force the Gaang to travel on foot.)

One of the core problems of Avatar: The Last Airbender is that neither the narrative nor Aang ask what it means to be the Avatar, it never asks what being the Avatar means to Aang, never seeks to ask if Aang or the Avatar are truly necessary for the health of the world, and really doesn’t want to ask if Aang as the Avatar is necessary at all. It states that he is, but never wrestles with why.

Why is killing the Fire Lord wrong? If you’re answer is because killing is wrong, again, ask yourself why. Why is killing wrong? If you’re answer is… it just is, you need to think on it some more.

There’s a bigger question though at the heart of this question, which is, “what are you willing to die for?”

Delenn: If I fall, another will take my place, and another, and another.

Sebastian: But your great cause!

Delenn: This is my cause–Life! One life or a billion, it’s all the same!

Sebastian: Then you make the sacrifice willingly? No fame. No armies or banners or cities to celebrate your name. You will die alone and unremarked and forgotten.

Delenn: This body is only a shell. You cannot touch me, you cannot harm me. I’m not afraid.

[after Delenn offers to sacrifice herself for Sheridan, who’s being tortured by Sebastian]

Sebastian: You can go. You’ve passed, both of you.

Delenn: Passed what?

Sebastian: How do you know the Chosen Ones? “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother.” Not for millions… not for glory… not for fame. For one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know or see. I have been in the service of the Vorlons for centuries, looking for you. Diogenes with his lamp, looking for an honest man willing to die for all the wrong reasons. At last, my job is finished. Yours is just beginning. When the darkness comes, know this: You are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

-Babylon 5, “Comes the Inquisitor”

The great leader is not one who wins by strength of arms, but from their ability to inspire change in others. When the hero falls, a hundred will stand up where he or she fell to face the darkness in their place. To carry on their values into a new generation. The hero’s legacy will outlast them.

The Avatar shouldn’t be necessary for policing peace in the world because the world should be able to police itself by following their example. If the Avatar is necessary as a club to enforce good behavior from the surrounding countries and the countries aren’t really able to band together in order to defend their people after he disappears, then the system wasn’t sustainable to begin with.

If Aang cannot defeat, make peace with, face, or even acknowledge his own darkness, how can he help someone else defeat the darkness within themselves? How can he inspire someone to face theirs?

Telling someone what is right and expecting them to change because you said so doesn’t work, the only people who will listen are the ones who already agree with your perspective. Being sympathetic to their plight, showing them compassion when they don’t expect it, understanding the source of their struggle, and recognizing the pain lying behind bad behavior does work when it comes to changing hearts. Empathy works.

Naruto is a hilarious counterpoint to Aang. Naruto is a character who was rejected by his society not for who he was, but for what he carried inside him. He was written off as dangerous, neglected by the village, and he knew they hated him even if he didn’t know why (because everyone was forbidden to tell him.) He grew up alone, and lonely. His vandalism, class clowning, destructive acting out is brought up by the Third Hokage in the first episode as coming from his desire to have his existence acknowledged by someone… by anyone. Even if the attention is negative, it’s positive for him. Something is better than nothing. Naruto’s dream, which everyone derides, is to become Hokage himself so the whole village will have to acknowledge him. This is standard behavior for neglected children, including smiling to pretend you don’t care, things don’t hurt you, even when they do.

What makes Naruto different from so many other characters like him is that his ability to connect with others and change them with the power of friendship is rooted in his own suffering, his experience of being rejected by those around him. His sympathy and empathy for those who share his plight, his attempt to communicate his feelings to them even in battle, all tie in with his growing understanding of the Hokage’s responsibilities. He doesn’t lose his optimism, doesn’t lose himself to hatred even though he’s hated. It would be easy for him to hate, but he chooses not to. He tries to understand his enemies instead, winning them over with genuine kindness, how hard he tries, and how he tells them not to give them up. “Look at what you still have,” Naruto says, “not at what you’ve lost.”

I’d rather have Naruto around than Aang, because Naruto is the obnoxious loudmouthed friend who headbutts you when you’re getting down on yourself. The one who sticks with you through thick and thin, and stays without judgement even when you’re the ugliest version of yourself. The one who hops down into the dark hole with you, the one who says, “I’ve been down here before. Come on, I’ll show you the way out.”

Aang is not this character, he tries to be but he’s too selfish and thin skinned. Aang is the character who gives you a sanctimonious speech after pretending to commiserate. He’s not willing to face the idea of being a bad person, or being perceived as a bad person. He’s hurt by rejection if the other person doesn’t immediately change after he tries. He’s not willing to empathize, even though he shares parts of Naruto’s backstory. He’s lost everything, but he wields his loss as an emotional crutch. We should feel bad for him, for the weight of his responsibilities, and how he doesn’t get to have what he wants. Aang is afraid of losing more, and that fear brings out the worst version of himself more often than not. He wouldn’t be the Avatar if someone wasn’t dragging him into being the Avatar. He ran away from being the Avatar, after all. He can’t reach people lost in their own darkness, and when he tries its usually because he has a genuine interest in them for a specific reason.

Avatar’s narrative says some people can be helped but they’re exceptions, some people can change but they’re exceptions and they would have anyway because they were actually good to begin with. Monsters, though, can’t be helped, can’t be reached, can’t change. Avatar’s narrative will tell you to abandon the people who bought into their society’s values, that they have to save themselves in isolation. Avatar will tell you there are good people and bad people, and bad people deserve what happens to them.

And… that’s not quite living up to the philosophy the narrative insists it espouses.

-Michi

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