I’m Casey, known to the cosplay and geek realm as Cutsceneaddict, and I’m the newest writer here at Beneath the Tangles. “Between the Panels” is my monthly column on manga, so I encourage you to read along with me as I draw spiritual applications from your favorite series. I assure you that if I can analyze something, I will over-analyze it, though I’ll do my best to keep things within that comfortable 1,500-word range. In any case, find a cozy couch, grab a box of Pocky, and enjoy!
I told myself I would write about any franchise besides Attack on Titan for my first “Between the Panels” entry, primarily because my first guest post at Beneath the Tangles covered the events of chapter 69. Naruto, Your Lie in April, Kingdom Hearts, Trigun—I considered writing about any one of these franchises. But, lo and behold, that fated time of month rolled around, and with the release of a new chapter in the Attack on Titan storyline, I found myself struck with a tsunami of inspiration that I couldn’t keep bottled up.
For better or worse, here it is:
Attack on Titan spoilers below! If you haven’t “read ahead” via the manga, and only seen the anime, then please read at your own risk. Believe it or not, some characters in the series die, and they’re named here. Also, manga scans. Lots of them.
Chapter 71 is about the start of a new arc, the backstory of Keith Shadis, and the interwoven history of Grisha Yeager. But more importantly, it’s about worth—the worth we place on ourselves, the worth with which others label us, and the worth we are inherently born with.
Eren goes to his one-time, crotchety drill sergeant for answers about his father, but what he gets instead is a lengthy inferiority narrative about Shadis’ personal struggles as a military commander.
As it turns out, Shadis had dreams to be “great” and do things so important that even the densest of humanity would take notice. However, his obsession with being “someone special” and gaining the respect of the populace drove him to be overly cautious (and arrogant), not risking or permitting any sort of new tactics, even when those tactics proved to be effective. After keeping the Survey Corps in a progress-killing stalemate for several years, Shadis resigned, motivated by the anger of the populace and his own sense of failure. This made him the first commander of the Survey Corps to resign; his predecessors had all been killed by titans during expeditions.
Given Shadis’ poor reputation at the end of his military career, it’s easy to understand why he stepped down to make way for someone more competent. However, it’s equally as easy to forget just how ambitious and confident Shadis was of his abilities prior to becoming commander.
“Someday I’ll do something so great… They’ll all understand how I think. And they’ll all recognize me.”
This isn’t the speech of a quitter. In fact, these same words could have easily come out of Eren’s own mouth: Eren—the story’s relentless, never-say-die hero.
So what happens between Keith’s moment of resolve and his resignation that makes him decide to quit the Scouts? Simply put: he allows others to define his worth. That, and the fact that Keith himself is a bit of a fatalist who believes he can never become anyone “special” if he’s born “ordinary.”
Keith begins to take the words of the populace to heart: essentially that he’s inferior to his captains and a poor leader who allows his soldiers to die needlessly. Ultimately, he begins to believe that he can never be someone of importance because he isn’t qualified: he’s failed too much and wasn’t organically born anybody “special.” He’s an “ordinary” man, not a “great” one. In comparing himself to others’ standards—and his own standard—Keith finds himself falling short. Feelings of worthlessness ensue, and Keith admits that he’s always been “swept along with the crowd,” never standing on his own feet.
Again: he allows others to determine his worth.
Words hurt. They can be as deadly as any bullet or blade; according to the Bible, they even hold the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). Even if we’re able to shrug off a painful insult or searing statement, it can be hard not to feel the sting of a snide remark. However, caving to criticism or the attributions of others means that we are looking to them for our self-value, and when we seek approval and self-affirmation in the people and things around us, we will be inevitably disappointed.
Seeking self-affirmation from others is not altogether bad. It can be encouraging to hear positive words from those around us, but when we place our entire sense of value into their hands, we are subjecting ourselves to a life of disappointment and mixed expectations.
This “others-worth” is especially prominent in the technology era, where a picture or message can travel to the other side of the world in a matter of seconds. We frequent our Facebook apps to see if our latest status has received as many “likes” as our last (and we feel like a failure when we only get two or three). Followers, comments, shares, and emoticons often equate to popularity, care, and respect. Today’s generation seeks value in approval, in little messages and “thumbs up” icons that translate to: “You’re doing good. This is the direction you should keep going. This is what’s popular/valuable/expected.”
One can only imagine that if Attack on Titan took place in 2015, Shadis may have caved even sooner under the pressure of the populace’s approval, with voices in the streets gaining even more presence in theoretical, wall-wide social networks.
“Special people do exist,” Shadis concludes. “It’s just that I wasn’t one of them.”
While returning from his final expedition, Shadis meets Carla Yeager and her newborn son. When Carla expresses concern for Shadis’ dangerous work, the commander rebukes her, saying that only great men can accomplish great deeds; that there is no hope for the ordinary man to amount to anything in his life. Shortly after his outburst, Keith admits that he falls into this latter category.
Then Carla drops the bombshell.
“Do you have to be special? Do people have to recognize you no matter what?” Gazing at the small Eren Yeager in her arms, Carla continues, “He doesn’t need to become great. Just look at him… He’s already great because he was born into this world.”
This is a perspective that Keith had never considered: that a person’s worth is not measured by their deeds or by the standards and values that others place upon them (or that they place upon themselves), but by the fact that they are, indeed, a human being. Every life is precious and worth something because it is life. Therefore, every life has a purpose for existing.
Ergo, Keith is “great,” not because of his position, courage, or ideals, but because he is a human being. He is valuable because he has life.
In a series where life oftentimes seems expendable and deaths are meaningless, this is a powerful message and runs counter to what many characters have come to conclude: that humans are disposable pawns caught up in a cruel world.
But even those characters who exit this cruel world between a titan’s teeth—seemingly without valor or honor—live lives precious enough to impact others, to, in fact, impact the world around them. Look at how Hannes’ fatherly presence in Eren’s life leaves an impression the young protagonist, or how Farlan and Isabel open Levi’s eyes to a dream bigger than he could imagine. Given Attack on Titan’s track record, it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Keith Shadis’ impact will also be significant—is, in fact, already significant.
According to psychologists Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, we have over 20,000 moments of interaction with others per day. That’s 20,000 different times that we daily shape those around us and affect the world at large. Human life is precious because it is capable of making lasting change in the world and in others. But human life is most precious because it is made in the image of God. God thought we were so valuable—so important—that He crafted us after the most perfect, awesome model He possibly could… Himself (Genesis 1: 26). Not even the angels—beings the Bible says are slightly greater than us on the spiritual hierarchy—are crafted in God’s personal image.
For those of us who are Christians, our self-worth should not be tied to what others say or think, how many “likes” we get on our latest profile pic, or whether or not we achieve our own expectations. Our true net value should be found 100% in God—the Creator of the universe Who, for reasons that baffle the imagination, takes interest in the most trivial aspects of our day-to-day lives.
Matthew 10: 29-31 goes into specific detail about how much God values us:
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
Despite there being some seven billion people on planet earth, God can tell how many individual hairs are on any person’s head. And while He loves all of his creation to the point of knowing when one of his sparrows—his tiniest birds—are killed, He makes it clear that human life is worth so, so much more.
We are created in the image of God—created on the final day of Creation, as though God put His ultimate stamp of approval on us and said, “This is it. This is my magnum opus.”
Others will value us, love us, praise us, sacrifice for us, but no one human being can keep an entire universe and all its microcosms intact while still finding us the most important and valuable thing amidst it all.
In examining chapter 71, Carla is definitely on the right track—that all humans are great because they are “born into this world.” But God takes things a step further, calling us “great” before we were even born, before we were even conceived, according to Jeremiah 1:5:
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee…
In God’s eyes, no life is “ordinary.” Great deeds do not greatness make. We are all born “great,” as life forms of ultimate value. Why should we allow others to determine our worth when it is God Who created us all and called us “great” before we were even born?
Much like Shadis, we could all use a reminder that we are valuable, regardless of what others might say. We shape others and our world simply because we are in it, and because our Creator imbued us with His unique attributes and image.
You might say that makes us extra-ordinary beings.