Picture a middle-aged man. Shoulders stooped and forehead creased.
He’s dissatisfied with his job but feels trapped and unable to make a change.
He loves his wife and four children, but can’t help but feel that they’re holding him back, limiting him from doing what he really wants and fulfilling his dreams.
Most of all, he hates the town where he lives. It’s small and confining and while others passing through might view it as quaint, he knows that’s just a euphemism for boring.
This is borne out by all the young people who finish high school and leave the town for college and never come back. Worst of all, most of the wealth in the town is concentrated in the hands of a single individual — the literal 1%.
Whenever I watch the film — always in December and usually on Christmas Eve — I end up wondering why so many people like it so much. It’s not really a happy or festive movie.The town, of course, is Bedford Falls and the middle-aged man is George Bailey, the focal character in the beloved holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
George spends most of the movie complaining or pining for a different life, even going so far as to take out his frustrations on his wife and children. “You call this a happy family?” George says at one point. “Why do we have to have all these kids?”
His adversary and the villain of the film — Mr. Potter — is repugnant and without any redeeming qualities, such that you do sympathize with George about his plight, at least until he starts complaining again.
Over the years, I’ve asked family and friends what they like most about It’s a Wonderful Life. What I’ve heard is how people love that the film reinforces what’s really important — family, friends, and values. For my part, I appreciate the film’s emotional honesty, which gives it depth and uncomfortable intensity lacking in other holiday movies.
When George lashes out at his family and tries to kill himself, you feel his loss and desperation. This isn’t a situation that Santa or any Christmas magic can salvage — this is a man very much living a life of “quiet desperation”.
As George has the opportunity to see what life would have been like if he had never been born, he begins to reassess his importance and feelings about his life and Bedford Falls.
The film concludes before George can reflect fully on his experiences, but my sense is he would have summarized his experience in the following life lessons.
Most of the barriers in front of you are barriers you create
George is always talking about wanting to get out of Bedford Falls, to “see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum” and “build things … I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
Yet, every time George has an opportunity to leave Bedford Falls, he declines. He doesn’t leave for college when he has the chance and he doesn’t seize any opportunities available through his entrepreneur friend Sam Wainwright.
George doesn’t even leave Bedford Falls for short trips, as on his honeymoon, when he chooses to forego an expensive vacation so he can help others in town during a bank crisis.
Bottom line: George could have left Bedford Falls. He just didn’t want to and struggled to accept it.
Appreciate what you have
Sometimes we can’t help but wonder what could have been or what we don’t have. We all do this. For George, such speculation led him to devalue his own life in comparison to his wealthy friend Sam and his famous brother, Harry, among others.
However, once so many people came to his aid, he realised just how lucky he was, with a caring, devoted wife, four healthy children, and an extensive network of friends willing to do whatever they could to help him. Fittingly, it is George’s brother Harry who sums it up best. “A toast to my big brother George: the richest man in town.”
Forgive and accept
It’s a Wonderful Life closes with all of George’s friends and family gathered around, and it is a memorable sequence. We are indeed all in this together. Still, the final lesson of the film is one for the self, for George to accept his life and limitations.
That he won’t travel the world. Or be rich. Or build the cities of the future. That he is and will be — at least by his own definition — ordinary and live out the rest of his days in Bedford Falls. It’s a powerful lesson and one we can all benefit from.
Forgive yourself for not achieving the life you naively thought was important when you were young. realise how you don’t have to be famous or rich to benefit and touch “so many other lives”.
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