“No longer are we surrounded by fields, woods, and rivers, but by signs, signals, billboards, screens, labels, and trademarks: this is our universe.”
- Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word
Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher who saw the world change around him in the 1950’s, as mankind moved further and further along the trek of technological advancement. One of his greatest literary successes, The Technological Society (made in 1954), could be said to be prophetic in its time. The Technological Society predicted that because mankind had such an obsession with “technique” (to improve itself through “experimentation”), that eventually mankind would become slave to its own technology. Instead of finding freedom with it, we would only find that we could never be free from it if we tried. He claimed that because of this massive shift into a monetary, convenience, and advancement-based society, that the fundamental make-up of human psychology would be changed in profound ways.
Once upon a time, we didn’t have smartphones. If someone wanted to see a friend from the other side of the country, that was a month’s journey on horseback — not a click of the button away. If someone wanted to write a message, that wasn’t a two second text away — that was a carrier pigeon and ten days away. If someone wanted to travel to new sights, they wouldn’t be snapping photos for Instagram posts to grasp some unstable source of validation — they’d be experiencing the ocean of clouds from the tops of mountain tips, contemplating the artwork of God or the significance of man. And instead of living in a world fueled by economic advancement that demands the vast majority of your conscious days, they would find themselves in a world free of time-consuming sacrifice and addictive distraction to contemplate and pursue deeper meaning for themselves.
This is the world that Team Avatar found themselves in. And it’s, in part, the reason why this author believes the show and the friend group known as “Gaang” is so attractive. It calls to a deeper sense of humanity we once had. And the question is, how can we gain some semblance of it back?
Here are four moments from Avatar: The Last Airbender that illustrate my point:
1. Gaang Lives in a World of Beauty and Nature
One time when Aang, Sokka, and Katara were flying over a swamp, Aang had an almost-spiritual encounter with the swamp. They were forced to land and go through a gauntlet of fear, mystical hallucinations, and vine attacks by Hue. At the end of it all, Hue sat them down on top of the ginormous banyan tree that acted as the core of the swamp, with all of its roots creating the massive swamp itself. Hue explains that this is just like life itself — how we’re all living in the same world and how we’re all connected with the same roots.
2. Gaang Grows Through Personal Connection
When Team Avatar and the others resided in Ba Sing Se, each person shared experiences with others that, though small, were impactful nonetheless. Katara and Toph went to a beauty spa and “pampered up”; after being bullied, Toph learned from Katara that Toph was beautiful — even though Toph was quite literally blind to her own physical appearance. Uncle Iroh stopped to help strangers in small ways (such as sitting down with a mugger to help him figure out his life direction or singing to a crying boy) on the way to honor his son’s death. Aang stopped to help relocate a stranger’s entire zoo so that the animals could live in nature as they were meant to. The list goes on.
3. Gaang Thinks Deeply
As the group traveled through the fire nation, Roku came to Aang in a vision so that Roku could tell the tragic tale of his and Prince Sozin’s friendship. Theirs was a friendship that started in their youth and lasted decades — they trained together, laughed with one another, gave gifts to one another, reveled in each other’s victories, and so on. Roku told Aang that “Some friendships are so strong, that they can even transcend lifetimes.” But his ended in bitter betrayal, as Sozin left Roku to die so that he could follow his vision in expanding the Fire Nation’s empire. At the end of it all, Aang shared what he learned in his journey — that people are capable of both great good and great evil; that every person should be given a chance; and that friendships can indeed go beyond one lifetime.
4. Gaang Acts With Purpose
Near the very beginning of their adventure, after Aang voluntarily surrendered himself to Zuko to save their water tribe village, Katara and Sokka made preparations to set out to save him. Gran Gran came with sleeping sacks and blankets for their journey and told them that they were the ones who found the Avatar and now that it was their destiny to travel with him on his journey. This ended up being true — it was the moment Katara’s and Sokka’s purposes were kickstarted into action.
The point is that they were able to grow by reflecting on nature, focusing on each other, enriching their lives with contemplation, and driving their lives with a life purpose and goal. We as modern audience members love to watch this happening, but how much time is spent actually doing it?
This isn’t purely theoretical either. There are legitimate numbers that prove that America is becoming a progressively (or should I say “degressively”?) unhappy place. According to the Washington Post, the United States of America was ranked 19th in the World Happiness Report (done by the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network) — which is a ranking that has been dropping more and more over the years. While America has a high and graduating income per capita and GDP, one of its primary obstacles is because we have become a “mass-addiction society” (according to Director Jeffrey Sachs). These addictions range from social media to substance abuse to reckless sexual behaviors.
On that note, despite the fact that the development of technology has allowed us to be more “in touch” with other people, people are more emotionally disconnected than ever before. The United Kingdom reported that 60% of 18–34 year olds feel lonely. America has reported that 46% of its entire population likewise feels the sensation of loneliness on a regular basis. In fact, from the years 1985 to 2011, the average number of friends has dropped from three to two.
Jacques Ellul points out that this inflation of perfecting everything we do has led us to committing our time to forces outside our control and that we only have a fraction of true freedom to spend our time on our personal identities. Today, however, since most of us find our livelihoods entangled in the world of economics and convenience (and spend the rest of our time captured by our addictions), the beauty and deep meaning of life is something that this author would say escapes the modern age in general. So what can be done?
Obviously, we can’t go back to the good ole days of riding flying bisons and practicing our waterbending. Nevertheless, there are a few things that can be done that’d parallel what good citizens would do back in historical times that’d deepen themselves and their connections with their loved ones. Here is a list of practices that can be accomplished, individually and collectively:
If we can ignore the more traditionally religious connotation for a moment, TEDx speaker Baya Voce tells us that the most connected places in the world (a.k.a. “blue zones”) all experience rituals with one another. In her own meaning of the word, “ritual” is essentially “repeated action” and “intention” with one another. This is the commonplace signature found within all blue zones. So what rituals can you create? Maybe you can watch an Avatar: The Last Airbender episode every Friday after school with a best friend. Maybe you can Zoom a sibling across the country and practice singing with one another every Wednesday at lunchtime. Or maybe you can sit down with your partner at night, get small cups of your favorite ice creams, and share each other’s thoughts in front of the fireplace (with no technology!).
“Connection isn’t created by the things we go get. Connection is created by the things we go back to.”
2. Breathe In Nature
Whether it’s hiking the mountains next door or gazing at the stars on the rooftop at your apartment complex, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the modern workflow and city life can provide freedom for contemplation. When was the last time you did such a thing? And if you have, when was the last time you decided simply to experience your nature walk instead of sharing that you’re experiencing a nature walk all over Instagram and Twitter? Contemplate the nature of love, why people think truth is relative, what purpose drives your favorite action heroes, jealousy, bliss, bushido, and God. And this time, do it without your technological distractions. Do it to enrich you and share about it with your friends — not on social media where there are thousands posting thoughts just like it.
3. Cook For Other People
Time is the greatest commodity one can have, not money. It certainly is a nice gesture when you’re out with your favorite friend at Oliver Garden and you decide to pay for her meal. But how much sweeter — how much more precious — is the ability to put your time, effort, and craftsmanship into a dish made by you? This author (that’s me) recently had friends over his place and prepared his “homemade macaroni and cheese” with whole grain angel hair pasta, Double Cheddar Ragu cheese sauce, parmesan, romano, and olive oil. They couldn’t wait to try it. When you think about it, whether you have much in common with another person or not, one thing you’ll be guaranteed to have in common with them… Is food! So cook food!
If one can put God on a purely conceptual basis — no one could deny that having a God who is all-loving; is always with you; knows you deeper than you know yourself; knows your situations deeper than yourself; is the director of life; is an all-knowing guide; and is the author of Creation could be of the best benefit to you. The matter of the fact is that we as human beings crave connection. And while a loved one might be a text away or a phone call away, that loved one isn’t always available. Prayer, however, is a form of communication and connection that is always available. God is always available. And not only that, but God loves you deeper than any human being could. That is — of course, speaking all on a “conceptual basis”. As a Christian, I truly believe that He is real and that all of that is very real. But whether my words are being read by someone who believes in God or someone who doesn’t, surely all the aforementioned benefits of knowing Him is worth a shot. At worst, you’ll privately talk to air; at best, you’ll cultivate a relationship with a God who loves you, roots for you, and gives you purpose.
5. Write Love Letters
Like cooking, the more time and effort you put into something, the more love you put into it. It’s easy to send a text message to someone, but how easy is it to send your spouse-in-pending, best friend, or a parent a hand-written letter telling them what you love about them or something that they did that made you feel warm inside? For obvious reasons, a love letter isn’t casual — it requires effort and intention. And not only that, but it’s an opportunity for you to be raw with someone you know in a very sincere way. So why not give someone you know the gift of making your love more fully known?
6. Read the Bible
“A survey by the Bible Society concluded that around 2.5 billion copies were printed between 1815 and 1975, but more recent estimates put the number at more than 5 billion.”
-Guinness World Records
Five billion copies already outpaces other books such as The Quran or Don Quixote by the billions (though exact numbers remain uncertain). And the study done discounts the 1,500+ years before that. The Bible is also known as the Book of Life. From the proverbs of Solomon to the Gospel message in Matthew, billions of people have been finding deeper meaning for many centuries. There’s a reason as to why this is. If there was a book that could get you more in touch with God, yourself, the others around you, society, justice, good and evil, and a host of other intrinsic values, the Bible would be the book for you.
7. Be A Gift Towards Others
We as the people of today love to consume; we love to get. And getting a hug or a cookie or a text message is nice. How can you give, however? Put yourself in the shoes of a loved one and ask yourselves “What would I want to receive if I was in their shoes?”. Giving is a gift in and of itself. Giving is receiving the knowledge that that person is loved. Treating others as you would want to be treated is selfless. And who doesn’t want to be treated by a person who is thoughtful?
Avatar: The Last Airbender — Sokka’s Journey (Part I)
Why Sokka had a one-of-a-kind journey — a comedic relief grown beyond properly.
God bless, God first,