Uncle Iroh & The Wisdom Of Forgiveness
You know how there’s things that you haven’t seen, listened to, or read, and people are always pushing like “you have to see this,” “you’ll love this,” “this is 100% you!” Avatar was one of those things in my life.
It dropped when I was living in the woods at a Bible camp with no cable, only chunky dial up internet, and at a time when I was supposed to be leveling up in my adulting. I had been married for just 1 year, and was in the process of trying really hard to look like I knew what I was doing as an adult. The show ended a few months after the birth of my first child and still 3 years away from access to tv and high-speed internet. That didn’t stop people from telling me about it, me recognizing cosplays from it, or my friend/our editor Timmy Martens telling me I would love it and that I’m similar to a character on it. When I finally moved to civilization and digital media in 2010 Avatar was on Netflix shortly thereafter, but at that point in life my one tv was occupied by “Baby Signing Time” and other toddler shows. But in 2020 when the world was slowing to a halt and Avatar and Korra were both brought to Netflix, I finally caught up. It only took an episode or so for me to see why people loved it, and even less time for me to see why people thought I would like Iroh, and me quickly becoming humbled or honored that people had compared me to him in the past.
Iroh quickly jumps up there with Shepherd Book & The Doctor in terms of wisdom, compassion, and grace. Even though I’ve been a father for 13 years myself, I still have 40 years of father issues that I struggle with even when I’m not aware of them. So, when I’m faced with people that are good depictions of solid manhood, compassion, and love (even when they are fictional) I get emotional. Seeing how Iroh loved Zuko warmed my heart, and then when I got to “Leaves from the Vine,” I was a hot mess. To see someone who had lost his son pursuing in love a nephew who had been not just abandoned but shamed and rejected by his father, just flipping beautiful. The one thing that kept hitting me over and over watching the series was how much wisdom they were throwing at a Nickelodeon audience out of nowhere. To go from SpongeBob to Iroh is like hardcore whiplash. That’s not a knock of fans of bikini bottom, but just a statement of the level of truth and wisdom Iroh was giving. So, I’m going to take some time to marinate on some of Iroh’s wisdom that spoke to me. So, pour yourself a nice cup of Jasmine tea fascinating stranger, and let’s enjoy this delight. (Side note, I totally drink hot tea now thanks to Iroh and my British Tik-Tok friends. Hi Chew_becca87).
(Side Note: Unless Otherwise Indicated, all quotes in this chapter are Iroh quotes)
One of Iroh’s biggest things that he focused on and encouraged, was being aware of and dealing with who you are. This is something Zuko and most all of team Avatar needed to hear, but I firmly believe we need it ourselves as well.
Iroh is constantly pushing against Zuko’s notion of his implied destiny of his father and the Fire Nation. Zuko was living in this world of self-deception that if he managed to complete this impossible task, he would finally possess the love of his father. He couldn’t see the reality that this hopeless endeavor was nothing more than a polite exile and banishment. Paternal gaslighting of an unwanted son. In a desperate longing to be loved and accepted by the only remaining parent he recognized, he was seeing manipulation and abuse as destiny. Iroh was so patient and forgiving in the process, but he never gave up on gently trying to help Zuko to see the reality of who he was and not to be consumed by halfhearted expectations and deceptions.
“Is it your own destiny? Or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?”
“It’s time for you to look inward and start asking yourself the big question: who are you and what do you want?”
“I suggest you think about what it is that you want from your life, and why.”
It’s often easy for us to believe what other people say about who we are, and who we’re supposed to be. If we aren’t confident in who we are in ourselves and what we honestly desire it can be pretty easy to get lost. Being involved in the church is no different. It’s easy for someone to see some quality in you in the church and say “you should do this” or “you should be that.” And they may be totally right, or they may be totally trying to solve a problem or fill a need with someone who seems capable. But capability and calling are far from the same thing, and is something we battle with every day. I am skilled and able to do many things, but most of those things won’t make me feel fulfilled, satisfied, or like I’m being who I’m supposed to be.
Scripturally here’s some things I think truly echo Iroh’s persistent questions of Zuko;
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Conforming to the pattern of this world isn’t just acting like you don’t know Jesus, it’s also conforming to what the world tells you that you are, regardless of who that voice is. It could be a manipulative person, social trends, your own insecurities, or anything else that tries to pressure you into being something that you know isn’t you. Scripture tells us that our minds being renewed helps us see things clearly, and in a direction God is leading. Some of us can’t get in that headspace because we are caught up in what others have told us. But not only do we have to be able to clear out the false directions and dictations, we have to actually know what we want.
“In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.”
“Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
As Iroh repetitively states, you have to know who you are and what you want. We see this theme echoed through Proverbs and Psalms. We need to actually know what we want. Yes, as a Christian that means submitting your plans and desires to God, but if you don’t have any desires to submit in the first place that’s literally like having the “I don’t know, what do you want to eat?” Style conversation with God. We’re not all gonna be chosen as the Avatar, and we’re not all going to have burning bush experiences. We’re going to actually need to do some self-reflection so that we know ourselves and our desires. One of the hardest deterrents to knowing ourselves and knowing what we actually desire though is believing the worst about ourselves. We get caught up with a snapshot of ourselves at our lowest points, and we think that is the only version of ourselves to exist. If all we see is our past and our failures, it’s hard to imagine our future and our success.
Iroh constantly warned people to stay clear of the edge when it came to the emotional pit of self-loathing and trauma. He knew all too well what it was like to slip into your worst self and he took care to make sure that those who were willing to listen, and even those who weren’t, knew this and had a chance to push against it.
“You must never give into despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road and you surrender to your lowest instincts.”
“You must let go of your feelings of shame if you want your anger to go away. Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”
“You are stronger and wiser and freer than you have *ever* been. And now you have come to the crossroads of your destiny. It's time for you to choose. It's time for you to choose good.”
“In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”
It’s true that it’s easy for us to lose hope in this world. To see the darkness, to see the despair. To see that the world is broken, and that oftentimes, so are we. We can be our own worst critics and persecutors. While Iroh’s wisdom is sound and true in these things, for those who follow God not only are these things true, but there is greater truth. Because not only do we have the ability to look beyond our guilt and shame, we know that we are made new, and given a righteousness and identity greater than our own abilities could imagine. We know that there is no condemnation for us even in the great depths of our failures
Ephesians 4:22-24 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
2 Corinthians 5:16-17
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
When we truly see ourselves as God intends, as forgiven, as redeemed, as new, as righteous, and as loved, it’s a lot easier to face the world, and ourselves. How we view ourselves is crucial to actually living life as God intends for us, and if at any point we are allowing the fear, shame, and doubt to be more perceived than the victory, love, and redemption we are vulnerable to miss who we are completely.
Not only do we need to see ourselves clearly, but we also need to be able to see others more clearly.
When we struggle with an unhealthy view of ourselves, then our view of others often becomes skewed by default. So often our pride, fear, or outright stubbornness causes us to view the involvement of others as unnecessary. That allowing others to help us makes us weak, or maybe that relying on others is just unreliable. After you’ve been hurt or disappointed frequently enough, you stop trusting people to be able to actually be able to help you. Or rather that they are only helping you for their own motives, leaving you second guessing every action and gesture. Being in this place leads us to the place of not only distancing from the help of others, but leads to isolation in distancing from connecting with others at all. We can not only move away from not helping others, but from cutting off relationships all together. Arriving at this place is like a guaranteed return ticket to seeing ourselves in a toxic light as well. Iroh firmly encouraged connection, vulnerability, and selflessness when it came to dealing with others.
“You sound like my nephew, always thinking you need to do things on your own without anyone's support. There is nothing wrong with letting people who love you help you. Not that I love you. I just met you.”
“While it is always best to believe in one’s self, a little help from others can be a great blessing.”
“Sometimes the best way to solve your own problems is to help someone else.”
The way we interact with others is a pretty effective mirror to show what is truly going on within ourselves. Our hesitancy or resistance to even try to have healthy interactions are big indicators that we aren’t dealing with our own trauma and issues. Whatever the conscious or subconscious motivation, the rejection of others shows damage and pain in ourselves. I know that for myself I'm often reserved and pulled back from others because I doubt their sincerity or feel like I'm just a resource to be used by them. I also have a metric ton of abandonment issues from past situations that causes me to think anyone of actual value in my life is eventually going to leave me. So, it’s hard to see people past your own trauma at times.
I totally understand growing bitter and cold in the face of this stuff. As Zuko often displayed, it’s easier to turn towards bitterness and a cold heart in the face of pain, fear, and insecurity. Jesus even stated that this would be the direction our world would be heading towards as well.
“Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” - Matthew 24:12.
People hurt us and let us down. Sometimes that’s intentional, sometimes is just a byproduct of their existence. If we are always expecting people to hurt us, it will be really hard to see the potential for genuine connection.
As Iroh stated; “If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.”
We need to move to the place where we don’t project our past pain and current fears on everyone we see. Learning to see others as valid, worthy, and a safe means of connection not only can help Zuko to get to the place of joining team Avatar, but can also be a big step in helping us being the believers and community God calls us to be.
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Learning to involve, seek out, entrust, and even love others on your journey allows you to be a stronger version of yourself. Honestly, without forward growth to take steps in these directions, it’sreally hard to be a Christian, or the church. We aren’t made, or meant to do this on our own. We find strength, encouragement, and community when we can learn to rely on others. Team Avatar would never have endured and overcome through all they did without learning to trust and rely on each other. Obviously, this took a while to accomplish, but it changed the whole dynamic. When we fast forward a few generations into The Legend of Korra, we see that some of the biggest sources of contention and conflict are because their generation had forgotten or rejected the unity that was once present. Which is a trend we see heading our way. The Church grew by leaps and bounds in the book of Acts.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common.
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
The Church in no way resembles that these days, and we resemble more accurately the discontented division of the Korra era. We can’t always sway whole teams, nations, and faith groups, but we can start with making sure our hearts towards others are in the right place. It’s a small step, but an important one.
The last section I want touch on is forgiveness. If you’re an Avatar fan, you well know where this is heading. So often though, it’s hard for us to find forgiveness or even face it, because we run. We don’t acknowledge our mistakes or confess our failures. We distract ourselves, or shift the focus to someone else's failures. Iroh is an advocate for admitting failure and mistakes.
“It is usually best to admit mistakes when they occur, and to seek to restore honor.”
“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again. Only this time, more wisely.”
If we can come to the place where we are honest with our mistakes, our sins, our failures, and our all-around bad life choices, we will see a dramatic change in ourselves and our relationships with others. I’m a people pleaser, and chock full of insecurities, so for me to admit failure and mistakes isn’t just a matter of saying I’ve done something wrong. It’s opening a door for people to judge me, to condemn me, to no longer love me. The mistake isn’t the hold up. The sin and failure aren’t where the hesitancy lies. It’s the fear. When we can move beyond the fear and be honest with our mistakes we are on a stronger path. Scripture, not surprisingly, shows us the same concept.
“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
James 5:16 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Admitting our mistakes, having honest conversations with others about their mistakes, giving out grace, accepting forgiveness, all of these things make us better individually and collectively. We are healthier and stronger when we can do these things better. It’s a hard thing to do this with other people though, when we are still running from God. When we are afraid to go to Him because of our sin, failure, and betrayal, that overflows into all our other relationships. The classic scene of Zuko and Iroh’s forgiveness is one we’ve seen played out over and over in culture, literature, and life. Whether it’s Edmund in Narnia, or River Song in Doctor Who, when we see someone truly come to a place of contrition over their betrayal and find forgiveness, we empathize. We feel that longing anguish of hiding or sins and flaws, and yearn for that release of forgiveness.
Prince Zuko : Uncle... I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me, but I want you to know... ...I am so, so sorry, Uncle. I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did. I don't know how I can ever make it up to you, but I...
(Iroh interrupts with that hug we’ve all wanted) How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me.
Uncle Iroh : I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you'd lost your way.
Prince Zuko : I did lose my way.
Uncle Iroh : But you found it again.
I know that these words in print don’t do adequacy to the moment, but they resonate. They resonate, not just because we are rooting for Zuko, but because we are rooting for ourselves as well. We want that embrace. That embrace that tells us we are loved. That embrace that tells us that we are forgiven. That embrace that tells us we haven’t lost our worth or welcome. We all yearn for that, and it’s my belief that while not everyone sees it or recognizes it, that we are longing from that from God. I know there are people in our lives that can offer us what Iroh gave Zuko, but I believe the Iroh / Zuko moment of grace speaks to us so strongly because in our souls it put a visual to something we long for spiritually. So many people are bitter, hurt, or angry with God, not because of something He has done, but because they feel like they’ve done too much to be forgiven for. They see that it’s easier to be in opposition to God than to risk not being received over our actions. To totally jump worlds of fandom, Mumford & Sons in their song “Roll Away Your Stone” states;
“It seems that all my bridges have been burned But, you say that's exactly how this grace thing works It's not the long walk home That will change this heart But the welcome I receive with the restart”
That’s what we long for. Iroh brought it forth in the world of Nickelodeon, but for me in scripture the one verse that it always comes back to is 1 John 1:9;
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
We think that turning to God after sin and failure will be some dramatically difficult task, when in reality, it’s going to look a lot more like Zuko and Iroh. We will barely be able to get through it before God is already embracing us. I don’t even have to imagine that or come up with an analogy because Jesus already did with an extremely similar tale. In a story that is basically Prince Zuko’s story, Jesus tells of a prodigal son that lost his way, and finally decided to come back home.
“20So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still in the distance, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.
21The son declared, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let us feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.”
Iroh is my favorite part of Avatar. There’s a lot of truth to be learned from his wisdom. There’s a lot of things we can learn from to see ourselves and others better. There’s also a strong appreciation for tea and prison work out glow ups. But my favorite thing about Iroh is that He reminds me that God loves me, and that God is waiting for me with open arms when I fail Him. From everything I know of God, He’s waiting on you too. Arms open, more grace than you can imagine. Waiting with a love that will overshadow your mistakes, sins, failures, and fears.