I assume everyone reading this knows that Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on March 10, 1997, 20 years ago. I thought it would be worthwhile to review how I think the show still speaks to us.
This may seem redundant, since I wrote the essays here and the whole book to demonstrate that the show provides timeless themes. What I want to do in this post is to distill its core message, not just for reference, but for inspiration. SPOILERS for all episodes and for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
We begin as individuals: “You are the center. And within you, there is the core of your being ... of what you are.” It’s that core from which you draw the strength you need to face the challenges of the world:
Angelus: So that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends... No hope.
Buffy closes her eyes and steels herself for whatever's coming.
Angelus: Take all that away... and what's left?
He draws the sword back and thrusts it directly at her face. With lightning-fast reflexes she swings up with both arms and catches the blade between the palms of her hands. She opens her eyes and meets his.
You were not born with that core. You were not given it by someone else. You created it by the choices you’ve made in your life. Those choices were never entirely unrestricted. Our abilities have natural limits and we make choices within those constraints. Others make choices too, and those may constrain us as well. Past choices may affect the options available to you now.
Don’t mistake those constraints as traps. “You have a choice. You don't have a good choice, but you have a choice!” The choices you make going forward today can reinforce or even redefine the kind of person you are. I wish there were a pithy quote from the series to highlight this point, but it’s implicitly shown throughout almost every episode. Instead I’ll quote from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (edited for brevity, my bold):
“Professor Dumbledore….. Riddle said I’m like him. Strange likenesses, he said.”
“Did he now? And what do you think, Harry?”
“The Sorting Hat told me I’d – I’d have done well in Slytherin. Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while…. The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it – ”
“Put you in Gryffindor. Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many of the qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. … resourcefulness – determination – a certain disregard for rules. Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.”
“It only put me in Gryffindor because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”
“Exactly. Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Not every choice defines your life all by itself. Most choices are small ones, though their cumulative impact may be large. It’s hard to know, though, at any point in time, which choice will prove to be critical; that’s why we need to make every choice a deliberate one. “There's moments in your life that make you, that set the course of who you're gonna be. Sometimes they're little, subtle moments. Sometimes... they're not.”
Most of the time, though, we recognize the big moments, maybe not in advance, but when reality slaps us in the face. “Bottom line is, even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are.”
What is it that you do afterward? That’s when we remember that we are Buffy:
“I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there's evil, and that I was chosen to fight it. I wish, a whole lot of the time, that I hadn't been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn't been either. But this isn't about wishes. This is about choices. I believe we can beat this evil. ... Right now you're asking yourself, ‘what makes this different? What makes us anything more than a bunch of girls being picked off one by one?’ It's true none of you have the power that Faith and I do. So here's the part where you make a choice.”