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What is the Spirit World Anyway?

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The wait for Book 2: Spirits has gotten me thinking: Brian repeatedly states that spirituality is an important theme in Avatar, but what exactly IS this theme? Well, to start, I've generally said that it is a favorable one. Spirits are an objective reality in the Avatar World. They have form, they can be interacted with, they turn the tides of history. At the same time, you can't necessarily believe everything you hear, as Spirits have been falsely invoked in episodes such as "The Puppetmaster" and "The Revelation." As I've said before, Avatar promotes a healthy skeptical view of reality--it's not about belief or disbelief, but what conclusion you come to when you think critically. And even then, you are likely to be wrong, so you have to be open to change.

Then I wonder how to apply that to the real world. Because, as I said, the Avatar world is very different. It's hard to argue that the Spirits are angry when one shows up & demonstrates its disapproval by blowing your house to pieces. But what exactly are the things?

They aren't truly supernatural, because they interact with the world in a very real way. In some sense, you could say that they're just animals, which live in this particular place called the "Spirit World," and have strange powers like how humans sometimes have Bending. Can the Spirits really tell us anything about real world spiritualism? After all, most religions claim very subtle effects that are generally explained by skeptics as placebo effects, or that credit should be given to the spirits for natural phenomena--not these grand gestures of otherworldly might. Some would even say that they are truly supernatural, that they exist, but you don't interact with them until you become a spirit yourself, & everyone who claims to have "seen" one is wrong.

My view, as it happens, is that there is no such thing as the supernatural. It's fun to talk about, & imagine scenarios where it could be, but it is not. There are only natural phenomena, & rational explanations that have yet to be discovered yet, a la Scooby Doo.

This poses a problem when I want to say that Avatar's theme of skepticism is worthy of praise. How can I reconcile that with my claim that the supernatural is inherently superstitious? I can say that it's different because "something" called a "Spirit" clearly exists in the Avatar world, therefore it's not superstitious to believe in them, at least not in general. However, I don't think that's the theme that Mike wants to convey. I don't know his actual beliefs, but his statement suggests that he believes in some things that may not fall under the purview of mainstream science.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he just feels that spirituality and science are just 2 ways of approaching the natural world. You can certainly DO meditation, and contemplate your place in the universe. These actions aren't necessarily "scientific," but they exist, and they are not irrational.

Maybe the spirits are just a big ol' metaphor for our tendency to personify, & take for granted, natural forces. One thing they definitely are is alien. It's difficult to understand just what exactly makes something a Spirit, what they all have in common, & what motivates them. You become a Spirit when you go out-of-body, do ghosts exist? Koh doesn't seem to be a nature spirit OR a ghost, so what is he? We know that the Spirit World somehow "balances" the natural one, but we don't know if this is intentional on their part, or just the way it's always been. Certainly, a lot of the Spirits that we know of are indifferent to human life. In fact, perhaps they merely "balance" the human world by making sure that it doesn't overstep its boundaries, and cause damage to their own.

Aside from the actual beings, the "Spirits," there is this overarching concept called "spirituality." It includes prophetic visions, past lives, philosophy, Bending, & more. It's not entirely separate from science--Bending is passed on like any other genetic trait, it can be measured, & understood from a rational viewpoint, & technology can be built that uses it to make life more convenient. Powerful Benders tend to be spiritual, but is this necessarily the case? Toph seems pretty worldly, but does she just express her spirituality in different terms from the detached Aang or the culturally-reverent Katara?

One thing that I think Avatar says pretty clearly is that there is no one true spirituality, or path to enlightenment. Iroh, our big dispenser of wisdom for Last Airbender, says that the Avatar State is overrated, while Tenzin, who arguably fulfills the role in Legend of Korra, says that no part of the Avatar curriculum is optional. At the same time, aren't those beliefs--and many others--naturally mutually exclusive? I doubt that most of us would say that each of our beliefs are equally valid, and that there is no one "reality." After all, if that were true, we would get a lot more math problems right. Often, I think it's harder than people make it out to be to draw that line in the sand, between objective & subjective. It's not impossible, they are distinct things, one flows into the other. In Avatar, it's a fact that Spirits exist, while how the characters, or even the audience for that matter, feels about them is related, but different. They can either be very right, as in "Spirits display emotion," very wrong, as in, "Spirits do not exist," or somewhere in between, as in, "Spirits are generally good people."

So maybe the take home theme really is nothing more than, "Well, what do YOU think it is?" In any case, I find the Avatar mysticism fascinating, and would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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