I’m late to the party on Avatar: The Last Airbender, as in a full decade late. I finally finished the series. (To be clear, this is the animated series, and not the M. Night Shyamalan movie.) Riding high on the incredible culmination of that storyline, I immediately started up The Legend of Korra.
Something struck me as I got into the next series: When we last see Aang in the show, he is thirteen, just barely a teenager. In the intro to Korra, we learn that Aang has died. That’s certainly no surprise; both Korra and Avatar are predicated on the idea that when the Avatar dies, that he or she is immediately reincarnated into the next life. We knew that’s part of it when we were following the adventures of Aang, since he was preceded by Avatar Roku.
But with Korra, it’s a little different. Aang is already dead when she comes along, and if you dig into the lore, he died at the relatively young biological age of sixty-six. Bear in mind that this is in a setting where some characters live to be well over a hundred. Avatar Kyoshi lived to be well over two hundred.
Why does this matter? Well, we don’t normally follow a protagonist to the grave if they live to the end of the story. There are exceptions, of course, but think about it like this: Do we know how Captain Malcolm Reynolds dies? Or Scotty? Or James Bond? Or Luke Skywalker? (I’m really hoping the new Star Wars movies don’t inform me of that last one.)
Even if we know on an intellectual level that these characters don’t live forever, there’s a certain kind of immortality that we grant them if they just ride off into the sunset, or if they’re lucky enough to get a ‘happily ever after’ ending.
Avatar doesn’t play that way. Characters are born, they live their life, and then they die. We don’t get the standard fictional insulation from the real-world cycle of life and death. And should there be another series set after Korra, we’ll have to resolve her death as well.
But there is a certain honesty in that idea that I find both sad and refreshing (which is also one of the rejected slogans for New Coke, BTW). We all like to think of the time in which we live as ‘the’ time, rather than just a single point on a very large timeline. Thousands of generations have come before us, and (we can hope) thousands of generations will come after us. We have our time in the sun, and then the sun sets.
I’m not saying anything we don’t already know, and neither am I trying to bum anyone out. Quite the opposite, in fact. So where am I going with this? Well, there’s a short sidebar first.
Story time: So, a few weeks, I was coming home from a dinner with a bunch of friends. I was alone and on a stretch of highway with very few cars around, none of them close to me. In less than a second, that changed. A car zoomed in from behind at close to a hundred miles an hour. The headlights went from being a distant sparkle to nearly on my rear bumper in less time than it takes for you to read this sentence. The driver turned right to avoid me, but in that moment it didn’t look like he would make it.
The worst part was not that sudden bolt of sick terror that went through me, but that both of the cars in question kept on going, weaving in out of the traffic ahead of me. They were racing. RACING! I might have lost my life due to someone else’s poor judgement, a causality of nothing more than an automotive pissing contest.
I’ve had some close calls in the past. One nearly got me at age nineteen, but I’ve never had one quite like this before. The whole thing had me rattled for a while. It still rears its ugly head from time to time, the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Those suck, especially now that I have a family of my own.
But, if anything, this experience has shocked me out of the weird funk I didn’t even realize I was in. Knowing that my life almost ended has made things more vibrant, more beautiful. I feel a deeper empathy to others now, and I am more motivated to be better than I was before. I know it’s trite, I know it’s cliché, but it’s no less true. In that sense, maybe the upfront candor of Avatar and Korra came into my life at precisely the right time.
Look, we all face down our own mortality at some point in our lives. 2016 has been the year for realizing that death comes for everyone, even Alan Rickman and David Bowie. Sure, we know that already on some level, but it’s a lesson we have to keep relearning during our lifetime.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that we have a limited time on this Earth, no matter how long we live. It’s not always feasible to live life like there’s no tomorrow (we still have to pay our bills, mortgage, whatever), so let’s do this instead: Enjoy your time in the sun. Live a lot and love a lot.
Be someone’s hero.
Go save the world.
It’s what Aang and Korra would do.