There are countless reasons why I love the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. I love Jimmy Stewart’s character, George (and can do an impressive impersonation, if I do say so myself). I love all 130 minutes of his detailed life. I love Mary’s loyalty and George’s kind heart and good humor. I love the fashions, the nostalgia of what seemed a more wholesome time, and their old-fashioned vocal intonation. But this year, I felt a connection to the film beyond its exceptional character development or its traditional holiday entertainment. I related to George’s plight, and had to understand what the takeaway was.
Each time the excited George Bailey came close to one of his ambitions, something would keep him from it. Yet in the end, George recognizes despite the many discrepancies between his planned life and his actual life, he still has a wonderful life. He learns this lesson, thanks to the bumbling angel, Clarence. Clarence provides George a peek at what his life would be like had he never been born. George learns his influence on his family, friends, and community was indispensable. However, what we do not learn is what George’s life would have been like had he gone to college, or had become an architect, or had he shaken off the dust of the crummy old town of Bedford Falls and gone off to see the world. Would George have been more fulfilled? Would he be more satisfied with his life? The film only shows the consequences of him never being born, not the consequences of pursuing his dreams.
This frustrated me.This time as I watched my favorite movie for the hundredth time, I wanted to shake my fist at it and yell that it didn’t understand. Me and George have dreams, don’t you see? (Can’t you just hear it in the old, black and white vocal style?) Why should everyone else get to go off and have their ambitions realized, while George coddles his struggling community? Seeing that George’s life was better than no life at all does not tell us whether or not his life could have been better had he gone off and done what he always wanted to do.
Then in the background, the subtle picture of George’s deceased father flashed into my view (when you’ve seen a movie this many times, you start to notice the artwork on the walls) with a quote below it, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
Suddenly the meaning of the entire show became clear. If anyone had “given away,” it was George. He sacrificed everything for the people he loved. We don’t see George’s alternative life, because it was irrelevant. Knowing whether or not he could have found greater satisfaction after seeing Europe or working a different job away from Bedford Falls would have offered no additional meaning (in fact, it would have given significantly less meaning) to the film; those achievements would have been mere bonuses.When the dust settles, living a wonderful life is dependent on what we have given. In George’s life, countless people– an entire community, were on the receiving end of his sacrifices. The point was George was already living a life that had eternal purpose. Perhaps George would have been able to “give” in his alternative life. Perhaps he could have had surplus money to do pro bono building projects for orphanages. That would have been good too. (Although, I have my doubts he would have had the same number of opportunities to serve or sacrifice as he did being the owner of the Building and Loan).
Now does that mean we shouldn’t have ambition, nor strive to better our circumstances? I don’t think so. I think what it means is that we should never let our own dreams prevent or distract us from giving to others nor appreciating the life we do have. Once we realize that in the end all that truly matters is what we’ve done for others, then can we understand that “A Wonderful Life” is always ours for the living.