I’ve watched It’s A Wonderful Life at least once a year for as long as I can remember, since the days of smallness and girlhood and uninhibited Christmas anticipation. It is an old and familiar story that reminds me what I actually like about the holidays.
Until recently, though, like many others, I thought this movie was about discovering what it would be like if we had never been born. Poor George Bailey thinks everyone would be better off without him, but learns his life has given life to others. Merry Christmas to all! Don’t kill yourself because you’re really more important than you thought.
Allowing myself to be cheered by the moving rendition of Auld Lang Syne as all George Bailey’s friends gather around him at film’s end, I didn’t think too deeply about the film. But if this self-important sentiment is all we get out of It’s A Wonderful Life, we’re missing out. The “I was never born” sequence is not the heart of the story at all. This is not a movie about how important George Bailey is or how valuable we all are to the life and well-being of those around us.
What we find in It’s A Wonderful Life is a man who turns American ideals on their head. We find a man who, instead of prospering himself or pursuing his dreams, gives everything up to serve and love the people around him. We find in George Bailey an anti-American hero because his life is not defined by making a name for himself or pulling himself up by the bootstraps, but by the people around him that George will always see as more important than himself.
It’s A Wonderful Life begins as a story about a young boy with big dreams and lots of talent. George wants to go places— he wants to “see the world!”—and he wants to build things. He admires his Pop, but as a boy, doesn’t understand his life choices. He sees the life his dad chose, running the Building and Loan, to be a bit of a waste. George says, “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office…Oh, I’m sorry Pop, I didn’t mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe…I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.”
But this very American sentiment of the young George doesn’t line up with the life he lives. When his father dies just as he is about to leave on his big “see the world” trip, George stays home to settle everything. When his father’s “nickles and dimes” business is going to be handed over to the greedy town miser, George takes over the business and gives up his college education to his brother. When the stock market crashes and the Building and Loan is threatened, George and his new wife give away all their honeymoon money to help people get by. George finds himself with four kids, living in an endless fixer-upper, with no real money to call his own, working on Bailey Park—housing for the working poor—doing day after day in that “shabby little office” he scorned only a few years before.
Slowly, without knowing it or understanding it, George becomes the man he knew his father to be, of whom he said:
“[M]y father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself…But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that?…People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.
Sometimes unwillingly and unclear about why he’s doing it, George takes his father’s place and enters the life-long journey of giving his life away for the sake of others. It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of the young boy who jumps in freezing water to save his brother’s life, even though it means losing his hearing in one ear. It is the story of a young man who chooses people when he could choose something else. It is the story of a man who finds that “something big and something important” are hidden in smaller acts of selflessness.
I am not going to claim that George Bailey is a Christ-figure, but I do see him as much needed anti-American hero. Without travel, knowledge, money, and the ability to make something of himself, George Bailey lacks almost anything Americans take pride in. He is a simple, poor man spending his life helping others. He seems foolish in many ways, giving up the world, an education, security, even his dreams – all things we value above almost anything else today. “See the world,” “Go to college,” “Give your children the things you didn’t have,” and “Follow your dreams” are common mantras of modern American society. Yet in this American classic, we find a man who doesn’t seem very American at all.
Then, in the last section of the film, George Bailey enters the world as it would be if he had never been born and discovers how worthwhile he is. As Clarence the angel tells him, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
As George winds his way through the “world-without-him”, he finds a man who was sent to prison for poisoning a child, a man who was never able to save up enough money to own his own business, friends who are scraping by, lonely and deserted, an uncle who is in an asylum, a brother who is long-dead, a mother who is childless and alone, and a wife who was not loved and not the given the opportunity to love. Namely, in all this, George finds people.
George does not find himself, or his own worth; he finds the people he loves. A short while before, he wanted to throw his life away in one great moment of humanity, desperation and selfishness. He found himself confronted by that haunting American voice of failure and let himself believe that it would be better to die than to fail. What he discovers, though, is not that “he makes the world a better place” in some trite, simplified way, but that he can better love and help and serve the people around him – the people he cares about – if he is not dead. He has to be alive in order to give his life away. And he sees, through new eyes, that giving his life away has not made him a failure. It has changed and served the many lives around him. It has left him poor and made them rich. It has left him without knowledge, but full of love. It has left him without a name for himself, except for the name “friend.”
As we watch this movie we are tempted to see ourselves and to feel validated. But this story is not about how wonderful we are, but how wonderful life is—it is not about us, it is about life. It is about how we should give thanks, even if the knobs on our staircases always fall off, and how, in the midst of giving thanks, we should give everything away, even to the point of seeming foolish. This is not a story about Christmas; it is a story about life. Life lived in connection with other people, giving, giving, giving to them of our time, our dreams, our money. It is also about receiving love and friendship, the richness of community, and, more than that, how wonderful it is to give your life away for the sake of the people in that community. We all need a little more of this story around Christmas, spring, mid-July and the rest of the year. We need a little less of the American dream and little more George Bailey.