Despite airing its finale 14 years ago, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender remains one of the most beloved animated series of our time. And that shouldn’t be surprising: The coming-of-age fantasy is action-packed and well-written, and pulls from Eastern philosophy to deliver insightful lessons and themes, and its share of memorable Avatar quotes.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asian-inspired world in which some people, known as benders, can manipulate the classical elements: water, earth, fire and air. However, only one person, known as the Avatar, can control all four elements, and bring peace to a war-torn world. However, the current incarnation of the Avatar is a 12-year-old boy named Aang — the last survivor of the Air Nomads — who has a long way to go before he can master all four elements.
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In addition to Aang and his friends, one of the series’ big draws is Uncle Iroh, a beloved source of wisdom and wry comedy. Entire articles have been written about the pearls of wisdom he shares with his nephew, Zuko. However, Iroh isn’t the only one who doles out life lessons. Each character shares insights, some of which could actually change a person’s life.
“You must never give in to despair.”
This nugget of wisdom comes in Season 2, Episode 5, “Avatar Day.” While the heroes try to solve a centuries-old mystery to clear Aang’s name, Zuko and Iroh encounter setbacks on their journey.
When Zuko proclaims their situation is hopeless, Iroh responds with one of the more memorable Avatar quotes: “No, Zuko! You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”
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Remaining optimistic isn’t always possible in difficult circumstances, but holding on to hope is always an option. Viewers got the chance to consider this definition of “inner strength” for themselves, and hopefully remember it during their own tough times.
“Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source.”
Season 2, Episode 9, “Bitter Work,” presents parallel stories. While Aang struggles to master earthbending, Zuko learns how to (theoretically) manipulate lightning. After Zuko tries, and fails, to produce lightning, Iroh tells his nephew he must release his feelings of shame if he ever expects to master the technique.
Zuko asserts he can’t be ashamed, because he’s as proud as ever. And then Iroh drops one of the insightful Avatar quotes: “Prince Zuko, pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”
That was, undoubtedly, a new perspective for some viewers. Seeing pride and shame as two sides of the same coin helps us to understand our negative emotions – and, better yet, howful A to remedy them.
“It is important to draw wisdom from different places.”
Zuko continues his firebending training throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it isn’t until Season 2, Episode 9, that he’s ready to hear Iroh’s philosophy.
As he begins the lesson, Iroh lists the better qualities of the four elements. “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places,” he says. “If you take it from only one place, it become rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements, and the other nations, will help you become whole.”
While none of us are manipulating the elements (unfortunately), we are on our own learning journeys. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut, and take information only from familiar sources. However, branching out and listening to what other sources have to say is crucial to our evolution.
“I know sometimes it hurts more to hope, and it hurts more to care.”
By Season 2, Episode 12, “The Serpent’s Pass,” the heroes of Avatar are in dire straights. While in the desert, they lost their sky bison, Appa, a beloved member of their party and their main mode of transportation. That leads Aang to set off on an unusually angry hunt for his furry friend. When that fails, Aang loses control of his power as the Avatar, until Katara calms him down.
In “The Serpent’s Pass,” Aang is oddly emotionless for most of a difficult journey. When Katara asks him about that at the end of the episode, he explains he doesn’t want to lose control again.
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“But now you’re not letting yourself feel anything,” Katara replies. “I know sometimes it hurts more to hope, and it hurts more to care, but you have to promise me that you won’t stop caring.”
Especially with the rise of social media, it’s easy for compassion fatigue to set in. But becoming numb to what feels like an inundation of problems isn’t the answer. It’s vital to find balance, and a way to continue to care.
“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”
In Avatar Season 2, Episode 14, “City of Walls and Secrets,” Zuko and Iroh try to survive as newly arrived refugees in the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se. Iroh attempts to settle in, going so far as to suggest decorating their apartment in case Zuko brings home a date.
Zuko insists he doesn’t plan to build a life in Ba Sing Se, to which Iroh responds with one of his signature Avatar quotes: “Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”
It can be easy to wish life were different, or to wait for better circumstances. But Uncle Iroh reminds us that, regardless of the situation, there is joy to be found and a life to be led.
“Creativity, versatility, intelligence.”
Throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sokka is often the odd man out in fights. He’s the only non-bender in the group traveling with the Avatar, and, as such, is often sidelined while the others perform fantastic feats.
Despite already being the “idea guy” of the group, in Season 3, Episode 4, “Sokka’s Master,” Sokka decides he wants to bring more to the table. So, he takes up a non-bending fighting style, the way of the sword.
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After his training is complete, Master Piandao muses on what made Sokka a good pupil: “it wasn’t your skills that impressed me. No, it certainly wasn’t your skills. You showed something beyond that… creativity, versatility, intelligence. These are the traits that define a great swordsman. And these are the traits that define you.”
Like Sokka, it’s important we don’t measure ourselves against others. We all have unique strengths and weaknesses; what matters is how we use our strengths to help others.
“There’s water in places you never think about.”
Hama is a waterbender that shows up for only one episode, Season 3’s “The Puppetmaster.” While the Avatar gang investigates strange disappearances in a Fire Nation town, Hama teaches Katara to find water to bend in new places, such as in plants or from the air itself.
“You’ve got to keep an open mind, Katara,” Hama advises. “There’s water in places you never think about.”
While this certainly ranks among the most ominous Avatar quotes, given the episode’s sinister twist, Hama makes a good point. As we work toward our goals, there are opportunities and allies all around us. We just have to be creative enough to notice them.
“They don’t see our greatness. They hate us, and we deserve it.”
Of all of the characters in Avatar, Zuko goes through the most dramatic transformation. He begins as an angry, exiled Fire Nation prince hellbent on capturing the Avatar and finally gaining the approval of his (evil) father. But over the course of the series, he learns to question what he’s been taught, and comes to realize what he truly wants in life.
That culminates in Season 3, Episode 11, “Day of the Black Sun, Part 2” when Zuko confronts his father, Fire Lord Ozai, and makes an insightful point about Fire Nation propaganda.
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“Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history,” Zuko says, “and somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation. They don’t see our greatness. They hate us, and we deserve it.”
Fans were quick to pick up on parallels between the Fire Nation and the United States, especially during the “War on Terror.”
“You must look within yourself to save yourself from your other self.”
This Avatar quote is a bit goofy, but it’s also surprisingly deep, upon further analysis. By Season 3, Episode 12, “The Western Air Temple,” Zuko has cut ties with his father, the Fire Lord, and attempts to join the Avatar and his allies on their mission to end the war.
Having spent the better part of a year pursuing the Avatar, Zuko isn’t received well, at least at first. Trying to think of what to do, he imagines what Iroh would tell him.
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“Zuko, you have to look within yourself to save yourself from your other self,” he says, delivering one of the most delightfully confusing Avatar quotes. “Only then will your true self reveal itself.”
Zuko admits he doesn’t really understand what that means, but he’s actually on to something. It’s important to be introspective. We all have qualities that we might not like — anger, resentments, insecurities. But if they’re left unexamined, they can grow into larger problems.
“You have to try every time.”
After finally joining the Avatar and his allies, Zuko goes with Sokka in the Season 3 episode “The Boiling Rock” to free Sokka and Katara’s father from a Fire Nation prison. The mission is filled with obstacles, but Zuko encourages Sokka by saying, “You have to try every time. You can’t quit because you’re afraid you might fail.”
Failure is inevitable. At some point, we all fail at something. But letting a fear of failure stop you from trying is the greatest failure of all. There’s a small victory in the attempt of something challenging. And it’s in the trying that the lessons are learned.:
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