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Avatars Among Us
jan flaska dean of students
January 28, 2010

About a month ago, Avatar came to movie theaters across the country. The plot of this captivating movie revolves around a battle between two forces over a natural resource called unobtainium buried beneath the surface of the planet Pandora. The movie’s main character, a disabled soldier, uses revolutionary technology to infiltrate the native population, the Na’vi, in order to ensure victory for the humans. The soldier is able to live within the Na’vi population through a Na’vi avatar, a body he controls from a distance.

The title of the movie is taken from the Sanskrit word avatara, which literally means descent, a form of the verb to descend. More specifically, the word came to be used prominently in the ancient Hindu scriptures to describe a god’s descent to earth in human form. Hence, an avatar has become synonymous with god incarnate —in the flesh—and, in modern lingo, a less formal use of the word describes the essence or projection of a person in spite of that person not being there.

A god incarnate is what we have in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture and one of the most widely read and translated texts from recorded history. In this tale, the main character, Arjuna questions his charioteer to understand how to respond in the greatest dilemma of his life: Whether to fight, as is his duty as a warrior, or to lay down his arms because many of his family members are among the opposing army. The charioteer, to be revealed to him later in the story, is an avatar. It is Krishna, the great lord, as the human voice of god informing Arjuna of all the considerations, and ultimately making a compelling argument for Arjuna to honor his duty. In this case, the avatar is an emissary of god, properly informing humankind of how to respond when faced with adversity.

Though in different forms, avatars have existed in other faith traditions, including the belief of God’s full presence in the human body of Jesus of Nazareth. In many cases, the avatars come to interact with humankind in order to direct humans on the proper path of existence; we are still reminded of this in the modern rhetorical phrase, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Avatars generally encourage humanity to honor an interrelatedness between spiritual and temporal existence, between those things sacred, and those things profane. Often in conversations on earth, questions of right and wrong are considered, as are themes of good and evil. Avatars, in a sense, have come to be a sort of moral consciousness to mortals.

It has become apparent to me that, in a secular tone, all of us here at Deerfield Academy have many personal avatars. Think of the times in our lives when something other than our physical presence represents us. I think of myself, where I am to a huge population of people who have never met me in person. Similarly, Facebook pages and IM messages convey some image at a distance from the author. When a college application is submitted, a paper avatar of sorts is put forth—a kind of ethereal ‘representation’—before others have had the chance to meet the real person. Even in athletics, except for the number on the back of the jersey, the athlete is not distinguished from teammates in any other way.

Acknowledging this fact, that we are often known for something before we are known as someone, are we who we want to be to others before they meet us? Do we offer kind words when we IM, email, or make postings on the internet? Do we properly clean up after ourselves in the dining hall, or in the dorm, even though anonymity does not require us to do so? Do we have good and compassionate thoughts to go along with our personal effort to do good and to bring compassion to others? In athletics, or in service opportunities off campus, do others know the Deerfield Girl or Boy to be you? Do students live their lives here in such a way as to live up to this ideal, whatever it may be to most of us?

We cannot be one type of person when we stand alone and are fully accountable, and another person when in the midst of a crowd, hidden behind a screen name or as the perpetrator of some untruth at another’s expense. Much like the soldier in the movie, who realizes his actions at a distance to be destructive, he chooses instead to change his frame of mind and make choices of compassion when offered the opportunity to do so in person. The lesson here is that our words and ideas should not be in contrast to the person from whom they originate. When it becomes so, it might be worth recalling our personal avatar for reconciliation, so that that which is ours and impersonal can once again align itself with our person.