3 Life Lessons From The Wise Uncle Iroh
Throughout the history of entertainment, whether in movies or tv shows, we have been blessed with a handful of characters that elevated themselves to standards of what it means to be someone of wisdom.
We have Yoda riding on Luke’s backpack, teaching him the ways of the force in a way only a true master could.
Mr. Myiagi, forcing a young Daniel to do his household tasks, with no apparent reason, only for him to find these same chores were teaching him the martial arts skills he so desperately craved.
You could even make the argument for Gandalf, who when Frodo complained — “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” — referring to the terrible evil happening around them, the wise wizard replied with one of my favorite lines of all time:
“So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Despite all being the incredible characters deserving their spot on the podium of the wise, there is one, in my opinion, who elevated himself to a whole different league of his own.
A character that, despite being a cartoon, can feel more real than any of the above, and more importantly, one that makes us strive to one day be as good as him.
I’m talking of none other than Uncle Iroh from the tv show “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.
A character whose history is marked by pain and loss, “failure” and suffering, a man who lost a son, who gave up his rightful heritage of becoming fire lord, a man that despite all of this, was able to transform his pain into his most powerful teacher.
If you’ve never seen the show, Iroh is the perfect balance between an ancient sage and your playful grandfather who never seems to get upset.
Throughout the 3 seasons of ATLA, he blessed us with dozens of lessons on how to become a person we can be proud of, all of them worthy of their one article, however, below you will find the 3 lessons that marked me the most.
#1 — Escaping The Darkest Pits
“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.”
In the show, we find that, beneath Iroh’s joyful way of being, there is a lifelong struggle in learning how to best deal with suffering.
From losing major battles as general, all the way to what could be the most soul-crushing experience for a human being: losing a son. In his case, a pain that was increased due to untimely death happening during a war he was waging.
Despite this, Iroh didn’t allow such terrible events to “sour” his soul, quite the opposite in fact.
He became a mentor to his nephew who desperately needed guidance, he never gave in to anger and suffering, and in every interaction we see, he portrays the immense wisdom he possesses in a calm, relaxed way. Never forcing his advice on those who do not seek it.
My favorite example of this is the episode “Tales From Ba-Sing-Seh”.
During it, we see Uncle Iroh go about his life in the city, running his daily errands, with the small catch that wherever he goes he always makes things just a little bit better.
He moves a beautiful flower who was getting too much sun closer to the shade, he sings for a crying child, easing her pain and turning the sobbing frown into a wide smile, and in a final example, while getting mugged, he disarms the robber and has a heart to heart talk, giving him the guidance he so desperately needed.
Despite all of these selfless acts of a man that would seem too good to be true, at the end of the episode, we see the humanity of Iroh.
We see him reaching the top of a hill that overlooks the entire city, setting up a memorial on the grass. As he lights up some incense we realize that this is a memorial for his son on the day of his birthday.
On what is one of the most tear-jerking moments in entertainment history, we hear Iroh say “Happy birthday my son. If only I could have saved you.”, as tears rush down his face, with a voice that his cracking due to a pain that will likely never go away, we hear Iroh singing the beautiful song:
“Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile tiny shells
Drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy
Come marching home
Brave soldier boy
Comes marching home”
#2 — My friend, be water
“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.”
In the show, we learn that, against what was common practice, Iroh used his opportunity of meeting different nations to learn from them, improving his fire-bending techniques.
He incorporated the fluidity of the water tribe into the more aggressive style of the one he belonged to, the fire one, to develop powerful moves no one could even imagine.
While in our world, unfortunately, despite being unable to bend the elements, we can apply this same concept to any skill we are trying to develop.
So often we find can find ourselves blindly following guidelines that impose a limit to how far we can improve. We become chained by the same methods that allowed us stories above in the first place.
As Bruce Lee once put it:
“Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
Learn the rules, however, don’t be afraid to break them. At the end of the day no two persons work the same, whether that is in the way they learn, practice, or interact, and as such, you need to find what works best for you.
Learn the best practices, obviously, but once those are mastered, as Iroh points out, don’t get stuck to rules that got you to a certain point of development but may hinder you from reaching above.
#3 — Here Is Always The Best Place To Be
As prince Zuko(nephew) and Iroh are forced to start a new life in a city where they have to hide their true identities, we see the wise Uncle pleased with this opportunity for a more peaceful life, while Prince Zuko has the exact opposite attitude.
“This city is a prison “— tells him Zuko — “I don’t want to make a life here.”
In his immense wisdom, Iroh professes what is likely my favorite quote from the entire show:
“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”
So often we find ourselves in situations that are much below the expectations we had. A job that doesn’t fulfill us, relationships that have stagnated, or a gym membership that hasn’t been used for the past 3 months, all situations that make us wish and dream about an easier life, one with no money struggle, exciting relationships, and a physique that would catch anyone attention without the discipline required to get there. The problem is, all have these are incredibly hard to not only achieve, but also maintain, and as such, we deeply resent where we are and what we have to do to change. Dreaming about what could be, what should be, and how unfair everything is.
While understandable, obviously we always want to strive for better, we do ourselves a disservice by failing to find gratitude in our current circumstances, for whether we like it or not, our current circumstances aren’t going to change by our hatred towards them going stronger.
Quite the opposite, as Bill Waterson once put it in his comic strip “Calvin & Hobbs”:
However, if we accept the reality of our life, of not only our struggles but more importantly, of our blessings, then we can enjoy what we are doing and experiencing while striving for where we wish we were.
A decision, that if we commit to, will soon see our circumstances change for the better.
Paradoxically, if we learn to enjoy the moment we immediately achieve what we are looking for in the future, on the other hand, if we always put happiness in a goal to be achieved, a place to be reached, we are likely going to be dissatisfied when we eventually reach it.
Thank you for reading.