This week’s lesson, following after the last, is the inevitable result of sin: suffering. And our guide is a character very familiar with the subject: Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.
First some background: Avatar: The Last Airbender tells the story of a world comprised of four nations based on the four elements: the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribe, and the Air Nomads. Each of these nations has its own ‘bending’ art which allows certain people to manipulate their specific element. The Avatar is a person born once a generation who can control all four.
The story goes that, one-hundred years before the start of the series, the Fire Nation launched an all-out attack on the other nations, seeking to become the dominant power in the world. When we come in, it is very close to achieving its goal, until our heroes intervene.
There’s a lot going on in the story, but today we’re only concerned with one character: Zuko, crown prince of the Fire Nation. His story arch is a long, rough, misery-laden road that eventually molds him from an arrogant, hot-headed young prince into…well, I’ll leave that unsaid for now.
Zuko is a character who, as he himself puts it at one point, is never happy. He’s constantly grouchy, sullen, and miserable. And he’s miserable because he’s focused entirely upon one thing which he is convinced will make him happy: capturing the Avatar.
Why is Zuko convinced that this will solve all his problems? That’s a little complicated. You see, prior to the start of the series, Zuko had managed to talk his kindly Uncle Iroh into allowing him to sit in on a war meeting (Zuko was thirteen at the time). But when Zuko heard one of the generals planning to callously sacrifice a platoon of eager young soldiers in a suicide attack, he angrily denounced the man for betraying people who loved their nation.
In consequence, Zuko’s father, Fire Lord Ozai, said that Zuko had committed an act of “total disrespect” and would have answer for it in a duel. Zuko, thinking this meant dueling the general he had insulted, accepted. But when the duel commenced, he discovered that he had been mistaken; it was the Fire Lord himself who had been insulted, and so Zuko was forced to duel his own father.
Zuko, naturally, refused, bowing low and pleading for pardon. In response, the Fire Lord told him “You will learn respect. And suffering will be your teacher” before burning half his face away.
Disgusted with his son, the Fire Lord banished him, saying he could only return if he captured or killed the Avatar; an impossible task, since the Avatar had been missing for the past century, and most people thought he had vanished entirely. Zuko, unwilling to believe his father had completely forsaken him, takes to the task with single-minded determination, the scar on his face a constant reminder of his shame and disgrace.
The unspoken reality, however, which Iroh knows and which Zuko cannot accept is that the Fire Lord really doesn’t care whether Zuko finds the Avatar or not. He just wanted to get his son out of his sight where he couldn’t disrupt his plans. Zuko is half-killing himself chasing an illusion.
And when I say ‘half-killing himself,’ I’m actually understating the problem. At different points Zuko gets into another duel with a master fire-bender, narrowly escapes an erupting volcano, gets blown up in an assassination attempt, nearly freezes to death, and practically drowns himself while chasing after his goal. Indeed, at one point he does consider killing himself, though fortunately Iroh sternly talks him out of it.
The sad thing is that Zuko did nothing at all to deserve all he goes through. He gets humiliated, tortured, dishonored, and banished by his own father for doing the right thing. Though sin did not cause his sufferings, his sufferings lead him into sin.
As Zuko sinks deeper into despair, he makes increasingly wrong choices. His relentless pursuit of the Avatar causes him to threaten and attack innocent people. His destitution leads him into stealing, even from people who show him kindness (“they’re about to show a little more kindness” he say when Iroh points this out). He’s frequently arrogant and sometimes manipulative. His sins culminate in his very worst moment (which I won’t spoil here) where he finds himself at a moral crossroad…and makes the wrong choice.
However, at the same time that he is driven into despair and sin by his sufferings, he also finds unexpected grace which lays the seeds that could lead to his redemption. His years away from home allow him to develop a close bond with his wise and kindly uncle, who proves to be a true father to him. He discovers the dignity of the poor, oppressed people of his enemy nations. He learns patience, humility, and discipline. His sufferings force him to step out of himself and truly grow as a person.
Of course, it takes him a while to understand this. From his perspective, all the crap he goes through is just because the universe hates him. “You’re like my sister,” he tells the Avatar at one point. “My father says that she was born lucky. He says that I was lucky to be born.” In another scene he stands on top of a mountain in a storm yelling at the heavens “Come on, strike me! You’ve never held back before!”
Zuko, as noted, spends most of the show chasing after something, subsuming everything he has in pursuit of his goal. Then there comes a point where he has achieved it...and finds that he’s more miserable than ever. When forced to say why, he says “because I’m not sure I know the difference between right and wrong anymore.”
As you can see, Zuko’s reactions to his sufferings are, like most people’s mixed. On the one hand, it frequently leads him into bitterness, self-pity, and sinful behavior. On the other, he finds himself almost unconsciously learning valuable lessons and maturing from an arrogant teenager into a mature, honest young man. He teaches us three main things about suffering:
1. Suffering is Not Necessarily Your Fault
We often fall into the trap of thinking “What did I do to deserve this?” but, like Zuko, often times we haven’t done anything to deserve it. Suffering can be the result of our sins, but it’s just as likely to be due to another person’s sin that affects us. Or it could be neither; it could be simply because suffering is what you need to become the person you're meant to be.
2. Suffering Can Make Us Better People
Cruel as Ozai’s actions are, he turns out to be correct; suffering indeed proves to be Zuko’s teacher, and it makes him into something much more than he ever would have been otherwise, to the point that, in the end, after all he's been through, he can say to his father “Banishing me was the best thing you could have done for my life.”
3. Getting What We Think We Want Won’t Make Us Happy
“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Zuko eventually gets everything he wants, but at the cost of his ability to know right from wrong. Without a clear conscience, without a moral center, all the honor, wealth, and even love in the world won’t do us any good. Zuko has his throne, he’s beloved by his people, he has his girlfriend, Mai…and he can’t enjoy any of it because he’s lost himself.
Sometimes, the means to escape suffering is to let go of the goal we’re suffering for and to look for happiness elsewhere.
Vive Christus Rex!