If you look for the light, that you can often find it.
But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.Uncle Iroh
Knowing that life is short, how do you want to live today?
We ask kids “what do you want to be when you grow up?” But maybe we should be asking them “who do you want to be when you grow up?” What type of person do you really want to be? How do you want to go through this life and what impact do you want to have on the lives of those you meet along the way?
When I reflect and ask myself these questions, one name always comes to mind: Uncle Iroh. If you’re not familiar with that name, Uncle Iroh is a fictional character in the Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra animated television shows. Iroh is the uncle of the initial antagonist: Prince Zuko. In the fictional universe of Avatar, Iroh was once the heir to the Fire Nation throne and a celebrated general in his country before enduring a crushing defeat in battle and the loss of his son Lu Ten. Once the events of the series begin, Iroh is an older, wiser man who has made peace with his past and become an important mentor and guide to the fiery disgraced prince Zuko. Uncle Iroh is a character who has lived life, tasted success and failure and learned the lessons along the way.
A cynic might say that the character of Iroh is simply a Mr. Miyagi for another generation: an old man from the mystical far East, come to save us confused and selfish Westerners. Even if there’s some truth in that, I don’t care. I still see his example as one that I want to follow. This is the power of fictional characters as archetypes: they give us an ideal to model and strive towards. When I look at the character of Iroh, I see so much of what I want for myself. He supports his nephew not by force but instead by guiding him and living as an example. Even when Zuko losses his way, Iroh is more sad and disappointed than angry. Even despite his difficult past, Iroh genuinely finds joy and freedom in the little things in life: a cup of tea with friends (and strangers), a soak in the hot springs, a friendly game of pai sho.
As a fictional character, Iroh is one example of the archetype of the “Mentor.” Another example of the Mentor archetype who particularly resonates with me is Gramma Tala from Moana. Like Iroh, Tala can be seen as “the village crazy lady” because she doesn’t allow the stresses and worries of everyday life get her down. She has lived life, she knows who she is and she is content to dance with the manta rays alone. That is who I want to be: someone comfortable in her own skin, at balance with my world and not striving to live a life that doesn’t suit me.
It may sound strange that a person like me: a professional working mom of two would look to fictional characters from kid’s shows and movies as examples of living the good life. For me, the examples of Iroh and Tala are the perfect counterpoint to my corporate daily life: the yin to the yang of my day-to-day. In a life full of endless projects and tasks to complete, the light-hearted, gentle wisdom of Iroh is a welcome retreat. I can see many Elders that I look up to – both real and imagined – reflected in the character of Iroh. For example, I see a lot of my father in the character. My dad has been through the devastating loss of a partner and a child and yet, like Iroh, he always has an easy laugh along with a bit of wisdom to share.
As I start my 37th year on this planet, becoming Iroh means stepping into the role of Elder and Mentor, a role that means a lot to me personally. It means embracing my role in the tribe as a guide, coach and teacher. I think I’m still relatively early in my professional career, I’m nowhere near even thinking of retirement. But, when I reflect on what type of leader I want to be and how I want to show up for my team at work and my family & friends at home, I still come back to the example of Iroh. I strive to be a servant leader, here to support and inspire my team to greatness. In addition, like Iroh himself, I also want to be able to hold my own when the challenges do come my way. Just like Iroh in that Fire Nation prison, I’ve spent my time at home this year training my body and mind for the challenges ahead. Even after being captured and thrown into jail by his own family, (including the nephew that he had worked so hard to guide) Iroh did not give in to despair. He was kind to the prison guards and even they came to like and respect him. Through those dark times, Iroh never stopped training. He knew that battles still lay ahead for him and he came out of that difficult situation stronger and ready to do what had to be done.
Iroh reminds me that a cup of tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s great joys. That wisdom can be drawn from many different people and places, even your enemies. He reminds me that happiness, love, peace and prosperity are worthy goals for living a good life. Success, power and perfection are overrated. Even during hard times – when darkness seems like the only thing you can see – Iroh reminds me that if you look for the light you can often find it and that hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.
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