One of my favorite parts about Christmas is the opportunity to see one of my favorite movies – It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life is, to me, one of the most powerful movies ever created because it provides an excellent blueprint for happiness.
If you haven’t seen it, the premise is fairly simple: A man who’s lived in the same small town his whole life is given the gift of seeing what the lives of the other town residents would have been like if he hadn’t been born. He gets to see the impact he’s had on those around him.
In a time when we seem to be a society divided by assumptions on definitions of happiness and the role of the government vs. the individual in society, this movie addresses those divisions head on.
+ In the film, the main character, George Bailey, plays a key role in the lives of many around him. He saves his brother’s life, he prevents his boss at the pharmacy from making a mistake that would have cost and his savings and loan business makes loans to many of the townspeople who otherwise couldn’t have felt the freedom of owning their own home.
The idea that we each can play a critical role in the lives of others is a defining idea in the way I’ve tried to live my life. I also like to let those around me know when they’ve played such a role in my life. For example, I recently tried to impress upon the realtor who helped us find our house that without her, we wouldn’t have found the perfect home in the perfect neighborhood. Like many I’ve thanked in the past, it seemed like she hadn’t really stopped to think of it that way. And like many, it really gave her pause.
I think it’s a useful exercise to not only take stock of how we’ve affected others (hopefully positively, but not always, unfortunately…) but to share with others how they’ve positively affected us.
+ In the film, George Bailey’s savings and loan provides loans to many Bedford Falls residents allowing them to purchase their own home and move out of the slums owned by the money-focused Mr. Potter. He makes many of these loans based on his knowledge and experience with the local townsfolk. It’s a loan made on trust and integrity, and it’s also a loan for which he takes full responsibility.
There’s a mention in the film of one of his customers who’s missing loan payments. Instead of foreclosing, George takes full responsibility for having made the loan. That wouldn’t have been possible these days with all of the banking regulations that George would have had to wade through. Now we rely on the government to tell a banker who they can do business with. But then, it was up to the business owner, and they would succeed or fail based on their decisions.
Even if one thinks we need those regulations, what does it say about where we’ve gone as a society that we need those rules in place? If they’re to protect us from each other, what happened that so many of us now can’t be trusted?
+ Many people these days think happiness is determined by money. Those who think that way are often frustrated by the money they have, or they look around and think others who don’t have “enough” money are unhappy or frustrated. They’re looking through the lens of fairness, as determined by their own definition.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, we see people of all walks and levels of wealth making themselves happy based on how they’re living their life – not by how much they’re making. There are characters who own their own business and those who are employed by others, but all are finding joy. They’re just finding it in their interactions with others and the role they’re playing in their community.
By contrast, Potter – the richest man in the film – is frustrated and miserable. We never see what makes him happy, other than the misfortune of others. He’s a man who’s got his and now he’s trying to use the government and the intimidation of those around him to rewrite the rules in a way that no one will ever be able to compete with him.
Meanwhile, George Bailey isn’t trying to succeed at the expense of others. He’s trying to run and maintain a business by serving as many in his community as is possible. He understands the role his success plays in the success – the employment, the ability to own a home and the ability to support and grow the community – of those who live with him in Bedford Falls.
+ It’s interesting how the town changes when it’s being influenced by the honest and community-natured George Bailey versus the that of Henry Potter. With the influence of George Bailey, you see typical storefronts – a pharmacy, a bank, a savings and loan, a department store, a library. In Beford Falls, these are the ingredients of a community-centered society.
But when we see how life would be without George Bailey, the town is now called Potterville. In it, there’s nothing but bars, strip clubs and more adult faire you’d see in the seedy side of any big city. The core difference is that in Potterville, everyone is giving in to their base instinct and self and instant gratification. In it, no one can be trusted and no one is looking out for those around them or the good of the community.
In a place like Potterville, you need more welfare and government assistance because your neighbor is not likely to provide any. Early in the film, they establish Nick the bartender as a friendly guy who looks out for those who’ve proven themselves to him. But in Potterville, Nick is a selfish and cruel man who sprays a homeless man and kicks him out versus trying to help or at least being humane to him.
And this is really the difference between when people see something greater than themselves in life versus thinking only of themselves.
+ At the end of the film, when George Bailey’s in big trouble, the community, the people who’s lives have been made better with George’s influence, rally around to help him by all donating money to make up for the $8,000 he owes. In the end, the wealthy Sam Wainwright – a rich counter to the greedy rich that Henry Potter represents – wires to give George the rest of the money that’s needed.
In today’s society, we’ve set up all kinds of rules, regulations and welfare to provide a safety net for when people are in trouble. Safety nets are good for those who can’t help themselves, but in Bedford Falls – a time all too long ago – people got what they deserved. They reaped what they sowed. And in George’s case, people rallied around because he was always there for them.
And this, to me, is one of the most moving parts of the story. George treated others the way he expected to be treated, and in the end, people came through for him. The neighborhood saw a problem, and they acted locally to fix it. No need for a bailout. Just a family and a community rallying for one of their own. This is the way life works when we’re thinking of others first.
I understand that many of these things I’ve mentioned are ideals. But ideals are critical to our society. They give us goals for which to strive. We can’t keep settling for or excusing bad behavior. We can’t continue to lower our standards and our expectations. The only way we’re going to be a society with respect, honor, dignity and trust is to identify and try and strive for high standards.
And that’s why I think It’s a Wonderful Life should be required viewing every year. It reminds us all of the positive role we can play in each other’s lives and how great each of us can be.
Merry Christas, and thanks for reading my posts.