“The monks used to say that revenge is like a two-headed rat-viper. While you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.” — Avatar Aang.
This is just but one of the sublime gems of wisdom spoken by the 12-year-old protagonist of the animated TV show series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Although I watched it as a child, the lessons from this show even resonate with me as an adult. The superb animation, impeccable narrative flow and unforgettable score give “Avatar” all of the criteria for a timeless classic.
Aired alongside “The Fairly Odd Parents” and “iCarly” on Nickelodeon, “Avatar” explores profound real-world themes of imperialism, corruption, spirituality, personal responsibility, mental health and forgiveness. It’s inspired by anime and the cultures of Asia, Mesoamerica and the Inuit nations, and the show uses its characters to demonstrate wisdom central to those traditions. The result is a heart-wrenchingly cathartic experience for the audience, especially in regard to second chances and justice.
Prince Zuko’s story is often referred to as one of the greatest character arcs in television history. Throughout much of the first season, Zuko plays the role of the villain, and with his wise Uncle Iroh, the two pursue Aang and his friends Katara and Sokka in hopes of capturing the Avatar and regaining his honor. Eventually, he becomes an antihero, but through the unwavering guidance of his uncle, he begins to understand that he is the one who determines his own destiny — and the righteous choice for him is to aid Aang in ending the war.
Zuko understands he must regain the honor he had really lost, which was that of him, his family and nation for subjecting the rest of the world to cruelty, exploitation and genocidal ethnic cleansing. This begins with Zuko forgiving himself, but his transformative desire to redeem himself is dependent upon Aang, Katara, Sokka and Earth-bender Toph to decide if they want to accept him into their group.
How could they? Aang’s entire race and culture were wiped off of the face of the Earth by Zuko’s family. Katara and Sokka’s mother was murdered by fire benders, and their tribe has been devastated by the war. Zuko was also an existential threat to them for one whole season, and his betrayal in the second season resulted in Aang nearly dying.
But it is the perspective provided by Toph that illuminates the group’s moral dilemma and prompts me to think about the practice of restorative justice. After they reject Zuko’s plea to join their group, Toph seeks to empathize with Zuko’s circumstances by suggesting, “Well, considering his messed-up family and how he was raised, he could’ve turned out a lot worse.”
Aang, Katara and Sokka do not wish to entertain this alternative perspective due to their embittered emotions. The group ultimately does accept Zuko, with the perspective offered by Toph and empathy of the group capturing the essence of what it means to have a restorative approach.
Restorative justice in simple terms is a transformational process of justice that emphasizes repair and reconciliation over punishment. Restorative justice allows for the perpetrator and the victim to engage in a process of dialogue where the harm that was caused is understood by the wrongdoer and they make an effort to right the wrongs that have been done. The objective is that both parties experience healing and closure. The precursor to forgiving a wrongdoer, however, is recognizing that harm was likely done to the accused as well and that it has impacted their behavior. Zuko’s interactions with the group mirror these steps to healing.
When we encounter people who have done wrong, we can condemn, exile or “cancel” them. Or, like Toph, we can be sensitive to their specific sociocultural circumstances, as no person comes to be who they are in a vacuum. Zuko is the son of an emotionally absent, depraved fascist who lost his mother at a young age. Acknowledging that his missteps are strongly informed by his upbringing is essential to forgiving them.
Refusing to give people who have wronged us a second chance — or even a third chance in Zuko’s case — does not ultimately help us accomplish our own goals of emotional closure and catharsis. If there is the impetus of desire for someone to restore the wrongs that they have done, I believe that the moral onus is on us to try to reintegrate them back into our folds in a just way.
The show borrows from Hindu karmic philosophy, in that, in order to bring balance to the world, the Avatar must understand that the separation of the four elements, the four nations and human beings themselves, is an illusion. We are all more interconnected than we realize, and things that seem different are actually part of the same whole. We all share the same world, and the restorative approach allows for those who have erred to rediscover their place in it.
Aang’s discretion prevailed in that he did not allow the proverbial two-headed rat-viper to poison his ability to forgive Zuko. In addition to mastering all four elements, I think it was Aang’s capacity to forgive that was integral to making him a great Avatar and restoring balance to the world. Forgiveness liberates us from having our past burden our future. We can learn from Aang and Zuko by understanding the importance of forgiving others and ourselves.