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MIT blogger Caroline P. '23

Taking a Step Back by Caroline P. '23

Using Avatar: the Last Airbender to talk about my feelings

**mild/moderate Avatar: The Last Airbender spoilers, but also this show’s been around for like over a decade soooooooooo, y’know, there’s that**

In the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko, the show’s main villain for the first two seasons, falls very ill after freeing avatar Aang’s beloved sky bison, which he could have used as bait to capture Aang. Capturing the avatar is the only way that Zuko, who has been disgraced and banished from his family and his homeland, will be welcomed back as the prince of the Fire Nation. This has been his life’s goal on the order of years. The act of showing mercy to the avatar challenges the very core of Zuko’s identity, to the point that he becomes extremely physically ill. Once he successfully fights the illness, he emerges as almost a completely different person, working with his uncle to start a tea shop and build a simple, happy life in the Earth Kingdom. 

The visual and narrative effect of Zuko fighting an infection is such a clever and beautiful way of showing the audience how painful it is to change on a deep, fundamental level. Just as the body fights infection, Zuko is engaged in a battle within where one part of himself –the compassionate and sensitive person he truly is– is finally confronting another –the angry, cruel person he’s been asked to be by his family and his nation, the parasite. While Zuko is sick, he switches which side of himself he identifies with to the authentic one, pushing the rage that once defined him into the passenger seat of his psyche. Of course, it isn’t this simple. As the series continues, Zuko periodically slips back into the person he once was as he’s faced with stressors and temptations, like being welcomed back into the royal family, but this is the turning point. His commitment to change starts here, and as time goes on, it becomes easier and easier for Zuko to listen to his heart instead of a lifetime of unhealthy conditioning.

I remember seeing this scene for the first time when I was much younger and not thinking much of it. But now, on the cusp of turning 20 and having rewatched it a few months ago, I find it’s not only a powerful piece of media, but an amazing tool in discussing the challenges of self-discovery and intentional change, those of which I’m currently facing in my own life. 

I think that at some point, everyone is presented with a moment where they get to choose whether or not they’re going to be the person they are, or the person they were taught to be by their family, their friends, their communities and/or society at large. I ran into one of these opportunities a little while ago, and I decided that I was going to do something for myself that conflicted with everything I’d ever believed about me and my relation to the world: I asked for help. Ever since, the struggle to find myself –what I believe, what I value, who I am– has been the primary project of my existence. Kinda like Zuko, I’m “fighting an infection”, the person I once was and the person I want to be furiously struggling to overpower one another and leaving me –the physical thing that, y’know, blogs and does psets and responds to people’s texts– really fucking tired. Illness requires healing. Exertion requires rest. Change, the kind that obliterates your old identity so it can be rebuilt anew, requires time and privacy.

I wanted to publicize my taking a break from my responsibilities as a blogger vs. slipping silently into ~the void~ because I think it’s important to see the people you look up to engage in self-compassion. I know a lot of the people reading these blogs look to us bloggers for wisdom, and as someone who supposedly holds wisdom, I want you to know that stepping away from a good thing so you can take care of yourself is okay. Barely passing three classes in a major that fascinates you is okay. Quitting your high school robotics team and leaving behind all the little wires you like playing with is okay. Taking a break from a job you love is okay. It doesn’t matter if you have the flu, or you’re on a personal journey, or your situation requires a team of specialists and a seemingly unending series of grueling attempts to change the toxic beliefs that led you to toxic behaviors: It’s okay to take a step back –or really do just about anything–  just because it’s important to you. I think this might be one of those fundamental truths about being human that I’m only just discovering. 

I might hop back on the blogs time and again this semester to say something, but only if I feel inclined to. In the meantime, I’ll be eating some metaphorical soup and taking some metaphorical cold medicine. And maybe someday I’ll open a metaphorical tea shop, where we can all sit around a table, telling stories and reveling in just how full and beautiful a simple cup of jasmine can really be.