As a Christian, I was raised to believe that God can speak to us through anything. I never really doubted that, but I guess I always assumed that anything bearing a message from God would go somewhere along the lines of a burning bush or a pillar of smoke; something powerful, enigmatic, and unexplainable any other way.
What I've learned in the past two year is that, a lot of times, the things that have the biggest impact in our lives come in the most unassuming forms. They're the mundane parts of your average routine, the things you experience in everyday life to which you never pay any mind. Little things like the grumpy old sales clerk, the adopted family member, or in my case, the television series you thought you would never watch.
It was in the summer of 2010 that a good friend of mine told me I should watch a show called Avatar: the Last Airbender. I had heard of the series many times, but had always dismissed it without a though. It being an anime-esque Nickelodeon program, my primary reaction had always been to assume it was nothing more than a lighthearted cartoon, the existence of which was dedicated solely to giving young children their Saturday morning entertainment fix.
Oh, how very wrong I was.
I had my reservations regarding the series, but I promised my friend I would give ti a shot. Upon looking it up that night, I promptly discovered that the entire series was available for instant watch on Netflix. The next day, my brothers and I sat down and watched the first episodes, and despite being leery at first, I stuck with the series and quickly became quite engrossed.
Avatar tells the story of a young boy named Aang, born next in the line of incarnations of the Avatar Spirit, meaning it is Aang's lifelong responsibility to keep balance between the world and the people in it. Over the course of the series, Aang learns to accept his identity as the Avatar and, with the help of his friends, ultimately brings and end to the 100 year war that has brought the world to the brink of collapse. But what really got to me about the series wasn't the main character; oddly enough, it was the antagonist.
Throughout the course of the first season of the series, Aang and his friends are pursued by a firebender named Zuko. Zuko is the son of Fire Lord Ozai, the series' main antagonist. Before the series starts exploring its characters, Zuko gives off the general vibe of being little more than a hotheaded, honor-driven firebender who seeks to capture the Avatar for military glory. It is revealed a few episodes into the series that he was, in fact, banished from his home land by his father, who burned him viciously across the side of his face and told him he was a disgrace, and that he could only return home and have his honor restores if he captured the Avatar, leaving him with deep physical and emotional scars.
This reveals Zuko to be not the egomaniacal soldier I had previously thought him to be, but a hurting teenager who just wanted the affection and approval of a fatherly figure in his life, and was willing to do whatever he had to do to get it. Enter Iroh--Zuko's uncle, an ex-general in the Fire Nation army who lost his only son to the war and has since, without realizing it at first, come to think of Zuko as his own son. When Zuko left the Fire Nation, Iroh left with him, and he offers his troubled nephew wisdom and love at every turn, putting up with Zuko's angst and poor choices and attempting to help him find a better way of life.
Iroh's unwaverign devotion to Zuko, and his gentle yet constant attempts to help him find his own way of life resonated with something deep inside me--an ache that I didn't realize was there. I realize now that this was the beginning of a process of personal and spiritual growth that God began working in me during experience watching Avatar, and that the ache I felt was the need I had been denying for the unconditional love of a savior. But I wouldn't recognize any of that for weeks to come.
Season one of Avatar is spent developing that there is more to Zuko than meets the eye; multiple instances show a compassionate side of him that willingly makes sacrifices for the good of others. We also see many touching scenes showing the potential for a very special bond between him and Iroh--but none of these things really show their face until season two.
Season two shows Zuko's search for the Avatar, the one thing he thought could restore his broken life, having been ripped away from him; he now has nothing and no one in the entire world except for Iroh, his ever-faithful mentor. On the run from the Fire Nation, Iroh and Zuko start a simple life running a shop in the Earth Kingdom, and that's where Zuko's incredibly well-written character arc really begins. He meets fellow fugitives, people who have been beaten down and scarred by the Fire Nation, and begins to realize just how much his lifestyle and the lifestyle of his country is hurting other people. He starts to questions his morals, and suddenly everything he's clung to his entire life isn't as comfortable as it used to be. And at some point during season two of Avatar, in suc ha way I didn't notice at first, he starts to change.
Iroh notices this, and throughout the entirety of the emotional trauma he nephew goes through on the road to discovering who he really is, Iroh stays by his side through thick and thin, offering encouragement and advice tirelessly.
When I watched Avatar, I was at a highly apathetic point in my spiritual life. I suppose I was a decent person by the world's standards, but I was selfishly living for myself. I had shut God out of my life simply because I didn't want to let go of my comfortable lifestyle and have to live my life for anyone other than me. Throughout Avatar, every time Iroh would unconditionally pour out love on Zuko, even despite his stupid choices, my heart would ache, and I never could pinpoint exactly why. Around mid-season two, when I fully realized just what was taking place inside Zuko, I realized just how poor my own condition was, and I finally admitted to myself what I had been denying day after day--that regardless of how hard I tried, I couldn't seem to make myself better on my own. And when I realized that this animated character on my screen was finding what I myself had striven for to no avail, I thought--and whether this was a prayer, I'm honestly not sure--"Oh, God, how I want that." And there, sitting on my living room couch, I found myself in tears as I felt God comfort me in and whisper to me, "You can have it."
From that point on, watching Zuko struggle to break away from him past, find his own goals and morals, and make things right with those he'd hurt was a journey for me as much as it was for him. It was a process that continued in me even when I wasn't watching the show. Just as Zuko had Iroh at his side no matter what happened, God was with me every step of the way. I became so very emotionally involved in the story of Zuko's redemption, because it had become so deeply personal for me. It almost felt as though our journeys were parallel; that as Zuko grew, I grew.
By the end of season two of Avatar, Zuko had come to the point that he seemed to have completely forgotten about his old life, having comfortably settled down in his new life with Iroh. It seemed to me that he had finally overcome his personal struggles, and that he was ready to turn around for good. You would think I might have realized that in real life, this is rarely the case. No one ever completely shakes off their demons; people make mistakes.
In the season two finale of Avatar, Zuko's sister Azula shows up and reveals to him that Aang had been living right under his nose in the Earth Kingdom, and offers him the chance to capture the Avatar and return to the Fire Nation together, and to finally gain his father's approval. Iroh pulls Zuko aside and reminds him of how far he has come, and that he is not the man he used to be. "You have reached the crossroads of your destiny," he says, "and it's time for you to choose. It's time for you to choose good." After quite clearly struggling with the decision, Zuko goes back to the Fire Nation with Azula and does nothing as Iroh is captured and incarcerated.
I was devastated. I was absolutely crushed. I had watched Zuko come so far, and become so wrapped up in his story. He had come so close to where he needed to be; I hadn't even entertained the possibility that he might make the wrong choice, and go right back to where he was before, but he did. He betrayed the man who had so selflessly given up his life as royalty and poured everything in him into helping him escape his detrimental lifestyle, loving him when no one else would. I just couldn't comprehend how anyone could knowingly do that to anyone else... until I realized that that's exactly what I had been doing, every time I shunned God's calls to come back to him simply because I was more comfortable the way I was living. I retreated to the privacy of my bedroom just in time to completely break down, because I had realized what I had been doing to God, not once, but every day of my life since I had decided I was better off without him. I couldn't bear the thought of hurting him like that, not anymore. That night, I decided that I wanted God in my life, and the next day, I continued watching Avatar. There was still one more season left in the series, and I wasn't about to give up on Zuko. I just knew there had to be more to his story.
In the end, Zuko did make the right choice. He joined Aang and his friends, helping to end the war that the Fire Nation had been waging on the rest of the world for the past 100 years. He took his father's place as Fire Lord, leading the Fire Nation into an era of love and peace. He comes to realize that "no one can give you your honor; it's something you earn for yourself by choosing to do what's right." And, as it turns out, God had one more little surprise for me in the story of Zuko: in a very powerful and beautiful scene in the series finale, Zuko finally makes things right with Iroh. He faces Iroh convinced his uncle, who he's grown to think of as his father, will want nothing to do with him, but just wanting to express his remorse, and is met with immediate forgiveness. I wept seeing this beautiful example of God's love for us, and how, no matter what we do or how badly we may hurt him, he's always there just waiting for us to come home so he can embrace us and let us know we are forgiven.
Avatar completely changed my life. It may sound ridiculous, and I feel rather self-conscious saying it now, but it did. There really is no limit to how deeply and how powerfully God can speak to us, and what he can use to do so. Avatar may have been originally intended for children, but is better loved by teenagers and adults than it is its target audience. And with good reason: it's a very well-written and powerful story, each character the well-developed and complex center of their own personal story, all part of a greater story full of lessons to be learned and morals that can be taken away, no matter your age. And while I love each and every character, my favorite will always be Zuko, through whom God's done so much for my life.
Avatar means a lot to me for the journey God took me on by watching it, but that journey isn't over. I feel like what God started in me through watching Avatar was just the beginning of something. I've continued to try to become better as a person and to grow closer to God since then, and I know I'm nowhere near complete yet. But I do think that, no matter what happens, Avatar will always hold a special place in my heart.