I was 15 when Buffy the Vampire Slayer made its debut on the WB. I remember it vividly: I was channel surfing and happened across the pilot episode as the opening credits were playing. I decided to give it a shot for a few minutes, and I was completely hooked.
Except for a brief hiatus when I left for college, I made my way through adolescence and young adulthood in the company of Buffy and her Scooby Gang. I was a year behind the characters in high school, so everything they went through, I went through, too. And I’m not talking about the apocalypse(s), or vampires, or murderous godlike beings with a penchant for fancy dresses; I’m referring to what they were really going through. Love, loss, finding who you are and figuring out your place in the world around you—in my opinion, these topics are what the show was really about. The Hellmouth and the battles against evil were the settings of the show, not the plot.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Buffy informed a lot of who I am as an adult. When I go back and rewatch it (which I do regularly every two years or so), it’s akin to going through an old yearbook. I regularly catch sight of forgotten moments that, in hindsight, I realize made tiny indelible marks in my psyche, contributing to the hodgepodge of traits that make up who I am today.
Beyond those tiny marks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer contains some pretty powerful life lessons that would be helpful for anyone to remember. What follow are just a few of the ways in which it’s helped to make me the person I am today —for good or evil.
First, when in doubt, use sass to cope with (or deflect) difficult situations. Above all else, Buffy was known for her epic sass potential. Whether she was quipping while kicking vampire butt at the Sunnydale cemetery or employing her sarcasm against Giles’s dry wit in the high-school library, Buffy (and her friends) usually got the last sassy word. This has helped me cope with frustrations (big and small) in my daily life. Sometimes, our sass is all that we have—we come up against forces we can’t control every day. Maybe it’s the job that got dropped on my desk at work that really shouldn’t be my responsibility, but no one else will do it. Maybe it was the cranky customer at the cash register or sitting at a table in my section at my restaurant job I held as a teenager who felt the need to make my life difficult. Maybe it’s the stop-and-go traffic at rush hour, or any number of other things that frustrate us on a daily basis. Whatever it is, Buffy taught me that there is a huge satisfaction in rolling your eyes at the situation (perhaps internally, in the case of the cranky customer) and saying something sassy about it, maybe with a smile, maybe not. It may not change the situation, but it changes the perspective, which is sometimes all we can do.
Second, no matter how much you love someone, sometimes you just aren’t meant to spend your lives together. The epic romance of Buffy and Angel continued to feature in the show long after David Boreanaz moved on to his own spinoff, Angel, with crossovers extending well into the final season. Like any couple with history, every crossover was fraught with angst and drama, which is, of course, what Buffy and Angel did best.
One of the hardest things for me to grasp as I watched the series (and, indeed, for me to grasp in life) is that sometimes, no matter what your chemistry is, your love story just isn’t meant to be. There are people in my past whom I loved fiercely, whom I could see forever with, and who I ultimately had to acknowledge had to be let go. And there are people to whom I was powerfully and mutually attracted, but in reality we just didn’t work. We never worked. Chemistry isn’t enough. When we cling to those types of relationships (as Buffy and Angel did in Season 3, as they often tried when they made guest appearances on each other’s shows), it usually does nothing except prolonging the angst and the pain. Buffy taught me that when I experience something like this, the best hope is to love and enjoy it while we can and then bid it farewell as it goes on its way. Easier in theory than in practice, but that doesn’t make it less true.
Buffy also demonstrated the idea that no good deed ever truly goes unnoticed. A long time ago, I was having a really bad weekend and was ensconced in a local coffeehouse with a few of my girlfriends. I had broken up with someone I thought I’d be with forever, I was crying pretty hard (in public, something that makes me intensely uncomfortable, which is an indicator of my distress at the time), and the world seemed so dark to me. All of a sudden, this note dropped onto the table in front of me as someone walked past on their way out the door. I didn’t see who it was, and to this day I have zero idea of the identity of the individual, although I do wonder about it from time to time. On the note, torn from a page in a journal, was written, “Everywhere is love.” It was a simple message and gesture, but although it didn’t take away my pain, it reminded me that someone else could see that pain and wanted to help. Even though it’s been 13 years, I’ve managed to take that scrap of paper with me through six moves and two states and over a decade. That stranger did something small and kind that has left a lasting impression on me, the impression that anonymous kindness can be the greatest gift.
Sometimes, random acts of kindness can be incredibly hard. Frankly, acting like a good person in general can be incredibly hard. It’s just not that easy to do the right thing all of the time, or even most of the time (some of the time?). But I trust that my random acts of kindness are noticed, and they do make a difference in someone’s day. Offering to take the older gentleman’s grocery cart back for him in the parking lot, or paying for the coffee for the frazzled looking mom behind me, or overcoming your self-consciousness and telling that kick-ass cosplayer how fantastic her costume is—all of these are things that make a difference in the days of strangers. They might even stay with them for the rest of their lives, as that tiny note does with me. Trust that your good deeds are noticed and don’t give up hope.
Speaking of good deeds, Buffy showed that being awkward and being a bad-ass are not mutually exclusive. Willow was probably the person I identified with most growing up—she was an incredibly awkward teenager who was blind to the traits about herself that made her lovable, but as she left high school and started exploring adulthood she evolved into an incredible bad-ass. Her evolution wasn’t just about her growing supernatural powers but about how that translated into her growing awareness of her power in the world at large. And through it all, she remained awkward Willow Rosenberg, who said the wrong things a lot (or maybe she said the right things in the wrong way).
As I’ve explored my own power in the world, and realized how awkward I can be, I’ve learned some things. Here’s a little secret: the same traits that make a person awkward can also make them incredibly cool. As a socially awkward person, I often say what I’m thinking, and sometimes that comes at the wrong time, but sometimes it comes at a time when a person actually needed to hear exactly what I was thinking. Also, I often miss basic nonverbal social cues, but while I’m doing that I’m also ignoring the social niceties that tell a person not to interfere with a situation that, perhaps, needs to be interfered with. Maybe someone needs to hear the hard truth that they’re being a jerk, or that they’re about to make a terrible decision. And maybe they’ll hear that and ignore it, but the important thing is that someone said it.
Being a socially awkward person is hard, but spending years being that person also helps to develop some coping mechanisms—like being straight with people about what’s going on in your head at a particular moment. These coping mechanisms can also translate to being immune to society’s BS and telling it like it is. One of the most surprising compliments that I get from my friends is, “I would never have had the guts to say that.” But to me, it doesn’t feel gutsy. It just feels direct. Being direct is important to being a bad-ass, and it’s made me better at it.
And just as awkwardness shouldn’t limit or define a person, the show also taught me not to define a person by the worst thing they’ve ever done This is a tough one—there are a lot of people in the world who have done some truly horrible things, and I’m not saying that they should never be judged for doing those things. But there are also people in the world who have done some horrible things but have changed for the better, and those are the people who should be given another chance. My husband often teases me about the seemingly infinite number of chances I’ll give to someone who’s been a jerk, but I think second (and third, and fourth) chances are incredibly important. If I were judged for all of the stupid, hurtful things I did when I was younger, I’d have no friends. I don’t think any of us would.
As a young adult, I had some rough patches with people in my life (like most people, probably). I didn’t know if I would ever be able to patch up those experiences. And some of them, I haven’t. Some of these people have shown no desire to apologize for the terrible things they’ve done, and they remain in my past. But then there was the time that a dear friend messaged me out of the blue to apologize for things that happened years ago. And through rekindling this friendship, I learned that he’s a different person (as am I), and we move forward. This wouldn’t be possible if I judged him only by the things he did in the past.
Of course, everyone makes their own choices about what to forgive and what to hold on to, and everyone will make those choices according to their filter and perception of the world, which is their right. All I’m saying is that if someone attempts to repent for their actions, to be a better person, I feel strongly that it should be factored in when deciding how to feel about them. Perhaps it will be factored in and make no difference, perhaps it will change things, but either way, a person should be judged for their whole life (or death’s) experience, rather than a single event.
Friendship is complicated and hard, and sometimes friends do stupid, hurtful stuff. But no matter what, we keep our friends close to us, because we can’t do it alone. You can’t ever do it alone. The characters in Buffy were all flawed, and flawed people make bad friends sometimes. Xander never told Buffy that Willow was trying to restore Angel’s soul. Buffy completely took her friends for granted on multiple occasions. Willow . . . well, Willow gave in to her emotion and tried to end the world.
But the thing is, everyone is flawed, and everyone is a bad friend sometimes. Even the most selfless friend in the world, the soulmate of a friend, occasionally messes up. Sometimes it’s a small mess-up, like flaking on a coffee date, and sometimes it’s a huge mess-up, like disappearing on you when you’re in the middle of a bad life situation and really need someone right now. We all have these expectations in our heads about what our friends should be, and usually they live up to it, but sometimes they don’t. I try to always remember that my friends can’t read the script in my head, and make allowances for the fact that they’re their own people with their own lives. Managing expectations is a really important part of being a good friend, on both sides.
Friends are human and they make mistakes, and they occasionally misjudge a situation and hurt the people they love. But odds are if you have chosen them to be in your life, there’s a reason, and it’s important to remember that reason. Life can get lonely and in the end, all you have are the people that you choose to share it with. So keep those people close.
Finally, when all is said and done, when apocalypses have come and gone and come again, I learned from Buffy that it’s my job to decide whether or not to make a stand. There is always going to be darkness in the world, and sometimes there’s more darkness than other times, but there’s always some there. I don’t say this to be depressing, but rather to remind everyone that there is always good that can be done in the world, and there’s always evil to fight.
Any time you make a choice to help someone who is struggling, you are fighting a form of evil. You can fight the evil of poverty, or of hunger, or of loneliness, or of despair. You don’t have to be a Slayer to be able to wield that kind of power. We are our own superheroes, and we can help to save the world. So let’s get out there and do it.