“I must capture the Avatar in order to restore my honour!”
Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is a young man filled with rage who will do anything to restore back his good standing in his father’s court. More precisely, his good standing, which also happens to pretty much be the entirety of his identity, is quantifiable in a single action and a single entity—capturing the Avatar. And capturing the Avatar will fix all of his problems. Consequently, Zuko’s fixation makes him constantly unhappy and dissatisfied with literally everything. No calming tea, no lazing in hot springs, and no Pai Sho games. There’s only one meaning in life for Zuko: capturing the Avatar.
“I’m never happy.”
“The Spirit Of America on Kyoshi Island? Uncle Sam, ready the rhinos! It’s not getting away from me this time!”
And, being one very angry, unhappy firebender, Zuko pours all of his rage into brute force attacks, hoping to capture the Avatar by sheer dominance and sweeping macho-ness. Kid who flies around with a glider? Rhinos! Upstart son who wants to join the good guys? Lightning! Political groups you don’t like? Call them extremists! People you disagree with on Facebook? Unfriend them! Modern problems call for modern solutions… right?
“Sometimes, issues have two sides, a red and blue and a purple lining in between. It’s like a purple sandwich. So, when life is hard, take a bite out of the purple sandwich.”
Zuko is eventually able to admit that his heart isn’t really in his efforts to be the Fire Lord’s evil son and thus begins his journey into the heart of every fan who’s a sucker for the beautiful and tantalizing redemption arcs of villains and misunderstood outcasts. (So, most people who also love YA fiction and fantasy) But Zuko’s also really bad at being good. And at forming eloquent metaphors. Yet, to his credit, Zuko eats his purple sandwich and doesn’t give up on trying to prove himself when the Avatar remains, understandably, skeptical of his conversion. Zuko is able to own his Fire Nation heritage along with his desire for peace and balance to be restored. Zuko begins to live as though there’s more to his life than just the Avatar, turning his Avatar-fueled obsessiveness into a stoic determination to fight for the greater good—a Paul instead of a Saul, if you will—and we love him for it (yes, I know you love him too).
“Your Zuko costume is pretty good, but your opinions are on the wrong side.”
“My opinions are NOT on the wrong side!”
Americans have become increasingly nationalistic, clamouring for the recapture of the “true” America at any cost. Whatever your political leanings are this year, I hope that you would have a hard time denying that our nation has grown more divided in these past years as we fight for different versions of one America. Like Zuko, people have seized upon the idea that capturing the Spirit of America is the singularly most important thing that our society can do today and, like Zuko, people have made the fatal presupposition that once the Spirit of America is captured and secured for good, everything else will fall into place and make sense. But we all know how that worked out (didn’t) for Zuko if we’ve watched Avatar: the Last Airbender like the self-respecting people we are.
“Get out of the bandwagon’s mouth, Sokka.”
We have political labels, a broken two-party system, an increasingly impractical and unfair electoral college, and many different American gods (hello, Neil Gaiman), yet everything is starkly divided into two halves that cannot possibly have any overlap—red or blue, capturing America or saving America, being a “real patriot” or being a “traitor.” Everything has become ordered around the business of finding and deciding upon the fate of the Spirit of America.
“All the time I thought firebending was destruction, but now I know it’s about energy and life.”
I’m not one to opine about the halcyon days of the founding fathers and the early days of the United States—frankly, those early days don’t seem to have been all that halcyon. Yet I find myself deeply concerned with the notion that, just as Zuko became belligerently obsessed with the Avatar and left damage and hurt in the wake of his pursuit, so Americans have become belligerently obsessed with the Spirit of America to the detriment of others (and each other).
Fine, I’m not just deeply concerned—I’m enraged. Enraged by the injustices meted out against the innocent and downtrodden, enraged that people are passive about said injustices, enraged by people who weaponize everything they can get their hands on, whether that’s politics or the Bible or Twitter. But what becomes of my rage? Where can I put it?
Of course I believe that God can move in a myriad of ways—God is neither red nor blue—but that doesn’t help. I’m still angry when people say that God can only be red or blue. Not unlike Katie’s meditations on anger, I can pray again and again for God’s peace, but I still find myself clutching all of the dread and all of the anger every morning. I want to be for the flourishing life—all kinds of life—but I find myself edging (hurtling) towards the small, dark place of only rage and despair. Yes, yes—I know that I’m contributing to the deafening clamour and roar of our world today, that I, too, am falling into the bandwagon’s mouth and becoming obsessed with the state of American politics. I don’t want to be narrow and I don’t want to box out all the other good and fruitful things in life, but I can’t just not care. And I know that lots of us—if the post calvin is anything to go by—have this feeling of being caught between a rock and a hard place, of being caught between our duty as citizens in the world and our duty as citizens of this weird intangible Kingdom of God thing.
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is easy to say, but that sentiment feels like bullshit in practice. Is this broken, divided, obsessive, rage-filled nation really God’s will? I know that God is big, and I know that I spend most of my time trying to make my problems—our world’s problems—bigger than God. I know that I must be on my knees to understand my need for Christ, but must I really be brought to my knees this way? Am I really supposed to make a purple sandwich out of this mess while also trying to juggle the tension between the necessity of American politics and the obsession of American politics? In the ever-eloquent words of Zuko:
“Why am I so bad at being good?”