“Gifts don’t make you better, just different. It’s how you use them that counts.”
– Beast Boy, Teen Titans
Season 1, Episode 4, “Forces of Nature”
When Beast Boy says this, he is relating a lesson that he has recently learned anew.
It’s been two decades since the first time I saw this episode on what was then a brand new series, but it has stayed with me all that time.
The episode begins with Beast Boy engaging in what he thinks will be just a bit of harmless fun, but something goes wrong, and it proves not entirely harmless after all. He tries to laugh it off, meaning to make the person he aggrieved smile and feel better about it but also trying to avoid the guilt he feels. Guilt isn’t pleasant, and humans automatically try to avoid unpleasant things. But he must face that guilt and take responsibility for it, or else he will never improve, never be forgiven by himself or others, and all that will be left is the pain of a greater hurt.
Opposite Beast Boy are the episode’s antagonists, Thunder and Lightning, who love loud noises and dancing lights and have endless fun with them. But when their fun begins seriously hurting people, they must be stopped, no matter how they might rage against the boundaries being imposed on them. A much greater villain takes advantage of this reckless spirit and fans the embers of their pride, telling them how gifted and special they are and how no one should be allowed to hinder them, until they are consumed by rage, not even noticing that their “fun” isn’t fun even for them anymore.
Beast Boy, learning about being more responsible himself, is able to get through to Thunder, showing him the error of his ways, and Thunder is able to get through to his brother Lightning. They put right what they did wrong and humbly apologize for it. They have learned that they need to restrain their fun, to abide by certain rules which avoid hurting anyone. They learn, like Beast Boy, that they need to be more careful, and think about their fun first. And they learn that they can use their gifts to do better than they have.
From beginning to end, this episode is entirely something which children and teenagers need to learn from, lest they become grow up and, with all the power of an adult, end up destroying themselves and others.
The truth is that everybody has gifts of some sort. Sometimes it’s a talent that they can turn into a skill. Sometimes it’s a stronger body or a keener mind. Sometimes it’s the legacy of a father’s success, their wealth and privilege. Sometimes it’s the blessing of being in a free, prosperous country, which has been purchased by the blood, sweat, and tears of countless people. Sometimes it’s the uncanny ability to get along with and manage other people easily. Whatever it is, everyone has something, and some have more than others. But these gifts don’t make us “special.” They don’t make us somehow better than others and above the rules and responsibilities that everyone else lives by.
Being stronger doesn’t mean we should be allowed to take whatever you want. Being more charming doesn’t mean we should be allowed to have any kind of fun you want without limit. Being rich or being free from obligation or being beautiful and popular don’t give us a blank check to get away with anything and everything, no matter who gets hurt.
These gifts especially don’t mean much, ultimately, if we don’t use them to help others.
There are actors, athletes, and other celebrities who have used their success, wealth, and status to do nothing but serve themselves, to the detriment of those around them and even themselves. And there are those who have used the same to help those around them, selflessly, with love.
Same gifts. Different choices. And that is what defines them, just as it defines us.