Buffy the Vampire Slayer Taught Me How to Raise My Children
Better Living Through Television
During the Golden Age of Nick-at-Nite, they frequently ran tongue-in-cheek promos instructing viewers on the finer points of how to be swell and promoting better living through television (inspired by a Honeymooners episode). I thought it was funny at the time, but years later I came to appreciate that television could genuinely be an instrument of better living. Star Trek pushed the boundaries of inclusion with "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" and "Plato's Stepchildren". Maude confronted the very real issues of abortion and women's rights in "Maude's Dilemma". Ellen broke down barriers by coming out in "The Puppy Episode". And HBO totally flipped television on its head, demystifying prisons and death and inner-city crime with brilliant shows like Oz, Six Feet Under, and The Wire.
So many moments from these shows and countless others have stuck with me over the years. Not a day goes by that I don't think about Nate Fisher telling Claire, "You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone." It haunts me and reminds me to cherish this fleeting life. But another moment from television's glorious history sticks with me as well and has informed the way I have tried to raise my children.
In April of 1999, WB pulled an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Earshot") because it featured a student wielding a rifle in a school clock tower and the threat of a mass shooting. This episode was slated to air barely a week after the Columbine High School massacre, and WB rightfully shelved the episode until September of the same year. When it finally aired, I was floored.
Buffy would become known for creative presentation, from the silence of "Hush" to the haunting "The Body" to the "Once More with Feeling" musical, and this episode was one of those out-of-the-box type scripts revolving around Buffy's temporary ability to hear everyone's thoughts. Jane Espenson's script hits all the notes. We get the humor of Cordelia saying exactly what she's thinking. We get Oz constantly thinking deep philosophical ideas. And we get the predictable Twilight Zone-esque theme that hearing what people are thinking is more of a curse than a blessing. But what makes this episode to powerful to me is the conclusion.
Buffy thinks Jonathan is going to the clock tower to kill everyone, but in truth, he's there to kill himself. He's miserable. When Buffy confronts him, he scowls at her: "Stop saying my name like we're friends. We're not friends! You all think I'm an idiot."
Buffy responds bluntly:
I don't. I don't think about you much at all. Most people here don't. Bugs you, doesn't it? You've got all this pain, all these feeling and nobody's paying attention.
They talk some more, and then she drops the bombshell, the wisdom I'll take to my grave:
My life happens very occasionally to suck beyond the telling of it. More than I can stand sometimes. And not just me. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're way too busy with their own. The beautiful ones, the popular ones, the guys that pick on you ... everyone. If you could hear what they're feeling -- the confusion, the loneliness. It's deafening.
The Confusion, The Loneliness -- It's Deafening
Growing up is hard. You're a mess of emotion and confusion. And sometimes it feels so powerfully lonely. Worse, kids can be unbearably cruel, and they'll latch onto anything different that they can squash or poison just to distract from their own confusion and loneliness. Like many, I was bullied as a child. And I suspect I unintentionally bullied others. Because that's what kids do.
But the lesson Buffy exposes in this episode is enormous. Other people aren't sitting around thinking about how you dress or what you said earlier that day or what music you like. Most of the time, other people aren't even giving you a second thought. They are too busy obsessing over their own insecurities to spare any energy caring about the things you've been worrying about. When my kids try to dress a certain way or act a certain way because they're terrified of how others will respond to them, I remind them of this lesson. It's a sobering lesson to be sure, that other people are too self-involved to care what you're doing. But it's an incredibly valuable lesson as well.
Don't waste your energy trying to fit in. Don't stress about what you wear or what you said as if anyone is paying any attention to what you're doing. Be yourself. Be the best version of yourself, to be sure, but be yourself. To paraphrase Colbie Caillat:
You don't have to try so hard. You don't have to change a single thing. Do you like you?