It’s very easy to feel like you’re forever going to be defined by your worst decisions or your biggest mistakes. But while you can’t change your past, you can change your future. By examining one of the best redemption arcs in modern media, we can learn how Prince Zuko overcame trauma and earned his redemption… and find how we can learn to find our own in the process.
- How our response to trauma can shape our lives… and why it can transform us into different people
- Why a desire for acceptance can turn people into villains
- How to make a break with the past to build a new future
- Why it’s so hard to make amends
- Why you have to let go of your desire to be “right”
…and so much more
How Do You Find Redemption? — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/find-redemption/
How Toxic Masculinity Hurts Everyone — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/toxic-masculinity/
Recovering From Failure — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/recovering-from-failure/
Why It’s So Hard To Be A Good Man — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/why-is-it-so-hard-to-be-a-good-man/
Solving The Incel Phenomenon — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/incel-phenomenon/
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One of the hardest parts about trying to turn your life around — especially when you are trying to find your way out of a bad place — is how little actual ACTIONABLE advice there is out there. In fact, a lot of times, it’s very easy to feel like you’re forever going to be defined by your worst decisions or your biggest mistakes. When we hear people talk about cancel culture or the MeToo movement or watch as people try to weaponize people’s pasts despite demonstrable growth — such as in the James Gunn controversy back in 2018 — it can feel like you’re expected to be a plaster saint and never make ANY mistakes… which anyone can tell you, is basically impossible.
In fairness, there’s an entire industry dedicated to wallowing in that misery of “oh, I’m such an awful person”, especially when that same fear can then be not just weaponized as a form of radicalization, but turned into profit for others who want to exploit it — relying on those mistakes, or the fear of being judged for them to leave you feeling more and more trapped and isolated until your soul starts to curdle and they can direct that anger, frustration and pain in directions of their choosing.
And just as importantly, the folks who are most invested in making it feel like there is no way out are the ones who benefit from that misery. After all, if you believe that you’re forever tainted by association with this group or those actions, then it’s much easier to KEEP you in that community — whether it’s the alt-right, Men’s Rights Advocates, the Red Pill community, the Incel community or many others. Why try to apologize or seek redemption? They’ll never believe you, it’ll never be enough; you should stay here with us, the only ones who understand you and how unfair it all is.
At the same time, the idea of a redemption story is incredibly fertile ground for a lot of pop-culture; the redemption of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren are prime examples of this. But then again, THOSE carry the message that redemption is a one-time action, one thing that ultimately makes up for everything you’ve done before… which usually involves having to die in the process.
Which, you have to admit, is going to be as much of a disincentive as the feeling that it’s impossible to be redeemed in the first place.
But as it turns out pop culture ALSO presents one of the best examples of how to find redemption and make amends for past sins — one that shows not just the how, but the why, and that doesn’t shy away from confronting the seriousness of what has come before.
We are speaking, of course, about Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Air Bender— one of the most interesting and nuanced characters in television and animation.
So today I want to break down Zuko’s search for redemption — why it took several false starts, what he needed to do in order to start the journey and why people ultimately were willing to forgive him — and how it can serve as a model for anyone who wants to let go of their past, make amends for their mistakes and build a new, better life… the RIGHT way.
But to do that, we need to start at the beginning, with how Zuko ends up needing to be redeemed in the first place. While it’s very easy to demonize people who’ve done wrong and assume that they’re just monsters, the truth is that we are ALL the product of more influences than we can possibly account for — whether that’s our upbringing, cultural influences, our formative relationships — especially with family and caregivers — and trauma. People almost never START out as bastards and fiends; even monsters tend to have an origin.
A lot of negative patterns and behaviors don’t come about because somebody’s a monster; a lot of times it starts as maladaptive learned behavior in an attempt to meet a fundamental need. Toxic forms of masculinity are a great example of this. The idea that acting a certain way — ways that are often harmful to the individual performing those actions or to society as a whole — will be rewarded with respect, approval, status or sex is central to why those toxic ideals can be so prevalent.
Recognizing and understanding what lead us to the actions, choices or behaviors that we regret and want to make amends for is a crucial part of growing and moving forward.
Case in point, we have the dual example of Zuko and his sister Azula. One of the most important things to recognize about them — and Zuko in particular — is that they’re the survivors of trauma and abuse. Zuko, especially has suffered profound abuse at the literal hands of his father, Firelord Ozai … AND at the hands of his sister. And let’s be clear: Azula is as much a victim of abuse as Zuko is. While it’s very easy to write her off as a sociopath, much of her behavior mirrors the abuse and sense of abandonment that she endured early in life.
In fact, both Zuko AND Azula’s behavior through the series is a classic response to the trauma inflicted by their father. Zuko and Azula both display what’s known as the “fawn” response — a maladaptive method of trying to find safety by seeking to please others or to mirror others’ expectations and desires.
Azula and Zuko both want to please their father, both to avoid the abuse but also simply to SURVIVE. Zuko in particular, was singled out by Ozai for horrific treatment; in the sequel graphic novel “The Search”, we learn that not only did Ozai nearly have Zuko killed as a child, but that his abuse of Zuko is a way of punishing and abusing Zuko’s mother.
That’s part of why the difference in Zuko and Azula’s fawn response is so telling. Zuko is trying to earn his father’s love and approval by proving his value — trying to show that he’s a good soldier and leader, as good as Azula.
Azula, on the other hand, mirrors Ozai’s cruelty and ruthlessness, which is what the Firelord ACTUALLY values.
This is why, even after being maimed AND being assigned a literally impossible task, Zuko is obsessed with “restoring his honor”. His “honor” is how he interprets the need he can’t actually fulfill: the desire to win the love and approval of his father and sister. That unmet need, and his desperation to fulfill it, is what drives him to greater and greater extremes.
It’s also what makes him so vulnerable to manipulation by Azula; by dangling the reward of approval and family, she’s able to twist Zuko into doing whatever she wants, no matter how much it goes against what he feels is right. Even as he has a moment of vulnerability and honesty with Katara in the Crystal Catacombs, he hasn’t fully come to terms with his relationship with Azula or Ozai; Aang still represents his failure and the possilbity of finally receiving his father’s love and approval. This gives Azula the ability to play to his trauma and convince him to help her overthrow Ba Sing Se.
That, in it’s own way, mirrors why it’s so easy for people to get sucked into communities like, say the incel community, or the alt-right. We all want to find our people, our community that understands us. People who are lonely or isolated or who have those profoundly unmet needs are frequently vulnerable to folks who use those desires against them. That sense of “WE understand you”, “WE accept you and nobody else will” is incredibly powerful. Finding that community of like-minded people can feel like exactly what folks with these unmet needs have been looking for.
But those communities ALSO provide incentive to conform in order to fit in and, especially to not question. And they also serve as reinforcement of those same negative beliefs and fears… which makes it that much much harder to grow… and much harder to leave. The Incel community is a prime example of this; the idea that “normies” hate them and that the world would just reject them and that there IS no possibility for change or improvement is part of the central dogma. It leaves people feeling trapped, and without hope. That sense of helplessness and despair can turn to rage and hate very easily.
But there’s also frequently a great sense of shame and guilt involved, especially for the things that people may have done either as part of the community or on their own. Those feelings can be incredibly hard to confront, especially when they fly in the face of your identity or your community. It’s much easier to retreat to the idea that either you did nothing wrong, or that OTHER people drove you to it, rather than to take responsibility for your actions.
This is why so many people will often diminish the harm they may have done to others or double down on why they weren’t wrong when confronted, rather than try to make amends; accepting responsibility can be terrifying and some people would rather never have to face the painful feelings of guilt or embarrassment.
After the fall of Ba Sing Se, Zuko is left in a similar trap. He seems to have the community and family he’s always wanted. However, he’s deeply conflicted by his actions; he can’t repress his awareness that everything he has — a better relationship with his father and sister, a girlfriend, his restored “honor”, even his status as a hero of the Fire Nation — isn’t just predicated on a lie, but a betrayal of his own sense of honor and right and wrong.
And to make matters worse: not only does he know at some level that he STILL doesn’t truly have the love or approval of his father or sister, but his actions could lead to the genocide of the Earth Nation.
Now he’s stuck in a bind. On the one hand, he knows he can’t truly have what he thinks wants, just the illusion of it. But on the other hand, acting against Ozai and Azula will not only leave him branded a traitor, but also leave him with nowhere to go. After all, why should Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph EVER accept the person who not only tried to kill them but betrayed their trust at a time when it seemed like he was ready to turn over a new leaf?
In this moment, Zuko’s dilemma is an example of the choice that many people who want make amends for their past mistakes have to make. They need to recognize that in order to start making things right, first they have to BREAK the patterns that led them there. And that’s terrifying because that means facing a lot of hard truths.
The first truth is recognizing the way they’ve been trying to meet their needs has failed and only hurt others. Zuko has to realize that he can’t wait for the people who hurt him — Ozai and Azula — to give him what he needs to be whole. For many others, it means recognizing that they’re torn between the need to be “right” or justified in their beliefs or actions and the desire to be happy or find peace.
But in order to actually achieve the growth they need and be ABLE to make amends, people who want to seek redemption need to face a second truth: that they have to make a break with the past. You can’t keep your feet in both worlds. You have to change yourself and your environment.
In the case of Zuko, it means choosing to leave the Fire Nation, his girlfriend and his dreams of acceptance by his family. All of these things keep him from growing or improving; they reinforce his negative behavior and make it that much easier to backslide. It’s similar to how someone trying to break their addiction to drugs often has to give up their relationship with others in their lives; the reinforcement of old behavior and the temptation to fall back into old patterns is too great.
Let’s be real: this can be fucking terrifying. Choosing to break with what you know, with the understanding that maybe other people won’t accept you BECAUSE of those past associations or past behaviors is very much a leap of faith. You’re being asked to leap into the abyss without knowing what’s at the bottom.
As terrifying as it can be, it’s necessary. You have to confront the hard truths. For Zuko it means realizing that he will NEVER get his needs met this way.
It also means recognizing that these actions, these beliefs and behaviors ultimately hurt you and others and that clinging to them only makes you feel worse, not better. Breaking those patterns also means challenging the things you’re afraid to confront, things that you have kept at bay through confirmation bias… which includes facing self-shame and self-loathing.
But at the same time, it ALSO means accepting that not only are you capable of making positive changes and being better, but accepting that you are worthy of love… and not turning away from love and acceptance from the people who are trying to give it to you. Zuko was so twisted by his trauma and his desire to please his father, he couldn’t bring himself to accept Iroh’s love and guidance… even though Iroh himself had faced a similar journey of change and redemption of his own.
This is why it isn’t enough JUST to break old patterns. You need to work to build NEW ones, POSITIVE ones and reinforce them. This is one of the reasons why changing your peer group can be so important. Just as the old group reinforced those negative behaviors, finding a new group — one that’s actually in line with the positive changes you’re looking to make — is important. They help keep you on that path, encourage you, support you and keep you accountable. They help model and reaffirm the very goals you’re trying to achieve. It also helps you accept the possibility of change and growth; without believing and accepting that change is possible, you only end up reinforcing your old, negative beliefs and behaviors.
The next step is often the hardest: you want to work to make amends. And it’s important to note that making amends for your past deeds or mistakes DOESN’T mean you’re going to avoid the consequences of them. Facing your actions honestly, taking responsibility for them and the harm you may have caused is an important part of the process.
However, being a “martyr” isn’t part of the process. Your suffering — or the appearance of it — isn’t what brings you redemption. Your growth and your ACTIONS are.
In Zuko’s case, redemption isn’t JUST turning his back on the Fire Nation or trying to live a quiet life in some village where nobody knows who he is. It’s in making amends by taking steps to try to set things right. That means finding Aang and joining team Avatar in order to teach Aang how to firebend, fight back against the army of the Fire Nation and ultimately defeat Firelord Ozai. In doing so, he’s not just making amends to Aang and the others individually but helping put the world right by restoring the balance and undoing the harm that the Fire Nation had caused.
Of course, the reason why this is the hardest is because, frankly, a lot of time, it means that you’re going to have to eat shit in the process.
People will often have very good and legitimate reasons to be suspicious or to not trust you. They may well not WANT to or be ABLE to forgive or accept your apology. And you have to be able to accept that; you can’t honestly make things right if trying to make things right is predicated on everyone loving you or acting like everything’s cool now.
You have to be willing to work to make things better, even when people doubt you or your intentions. You need to let your commitment and your actions be the proof of your sincerity.
Team Avatar REJECT Zuko at first, and with good reason. Not only has Zuko betrayed them before, but he hired the assassin that’s currently stalking them in order to cover up the lie that he killed the Avatar. It’s entirely understandable that they would be furious with him… just as it’s understandable that he’s so frustrated by his inability to make them believe.
He’s only able to earn their initial acceptance because he PROVES his sincerity by throwing himself into danger in order to undo the harm he’s caused — harm in this case being represented by the Combustion Man.
And just as importantly, not only does he apologize (again), but he makes it clear that he understands not just how he wronged them but why, and he shows that he genuinely wants to do whatever it takes to make things right.
It’s his actions — both in putting himself in harm’s way and his apology — that make it possible for Team Avatar to believe him and accept him.
That doesn’t mean he’s instantly forgiven or that people even trust him per se.
When the team accepts him, it’s not just conditional, it’s on a strictly pragmatic basis. They recognize that they need him, and so they’re willing to take that chance. Katara, in particular, makes it clear that she doesn’t trust him and certainly doesn’t forgive him.
It’s only because he consistently demonstrates that he’s sincere — even when it’s hard, even when he’s incredibly frustrated — that they start to trust him and even begin to connect with him. He’s willing to open up and be vulnerable with them, coming to them from a place of integrity and humility… and that’s what ultimately brings them around.
It’s not fun or easy… but it’s not supposed to be. If he were doing it for the reward, then he wouldn’t be seeking redemption or making amends.
And that helps demonstrate one of the most important lessons: that making things better, BEING better is a process, not a one-time change… especially when you’re trying to break the habits and patterns of years or even a lifetime. It’s easy to screw up, especially when you’re still trying to bring your life in line with the new values you’re trying to live by. And it can be frustrating as hell too.
You have to be ready for it to be uncomfortable and awkward for a while. In a very real way, it’s the emotional equivalent of trying to remodel your house while you’re living in it. It’s messy, it’s uncomfortable, half the things are in the wrong place and everything feels like utter chaos. All that makes it tempting to stop. But the truth is that there’s no reconstruction without demolition. To build the new, first you have to tear down the old… especially when the old is causing you misery.
And one more thing.
One of THE most important lessons to take away from Zuko’s search for redemption is that past mistakes or misdeeds don’t dictate your future. It’s said that no tree can grow to Heaven unless its roots reach down to Hell, and Zuko epitomizes that.
Zuko was cruel and arrogant, scared and lost. He made mistakes and choices that hurt people, even damaged nations. But he took that past and let it be part of the crucible that transformed him from an arrogant and angry boy to a wise man and noble leader precisely BECAUSE he was willing to learn, to take responsibility and do the work to make things right.
It was a struggle. He had to overcome trauma, make terrifyingly hard choices and be accountable for what he had done. But in doing so, he became a much better man.
That’s something to keep in mind.
Trying to be a better man isn’t about never making mistakes or doing anything wrong; it’s in how you respond to those mistakes and how you try to make things right. We can’t change our past… but we CAN learn from it… and in doing so, change our future.