Self-Gift and a Wonderful Life

My favorite Christmas movie, hands down, is It’s a Wonderful Life. The film, well known to many, portrays a man named George Bailey who has lived a wonderful life but who doesn’t know it. In a moment of crisis, he finds himself in despair and must learn anew why his life is worthwhile.

George Bailey is a man who continually gives his life away. As a boy, he dreams of winning a million dollars and traveling around the world in order to escape Bedford Falls. When that doesn’t happen, he works hard and responsibly to save up funds for college and for travel. But at every point, just as he is about to fulfill his dreams, something comes up that requires that he stay behind in Bedford Falls: his father has a stroke and so he must take over the family business; he realizes that he loves Mary and so can’t leave without her; and to save the savings and loan during a bank run, he and Mary give away all their honeymoon cash at the last moment. George Bailey is not a do-gooder who just delights in all the responsibility and care giving. But when he’s faced with crucial decisions, he ultimately follows the words that we see hanging underneath his father’s portrait in the savings and loan: “The only things that we take with us are those that we have given away.”

When Uncle Billy loses a substantial chunk of cash and George faces a crisis of possible scandal and imprisonment, as well as the loss of his father’s legacy, he falls into despair. His despair is not so much about the prospect of jail per se, but about whether his life is meaningful. If he has done so much to be responsible to others, to do the right thing, and in the end the will of the evil Mr Potter triumphs, what does it all mean? At one point in the film, Mr Potter cynically challenges George Bailey, telling him to go ahead and approach all the “riff raff” that he helped over the years and see if they will help him. Potter declares that they won’t care for George and will just run him out of town.

Of course, Potter is completely wrong; at the end of the film, we know, Mary will approach all those whom George had helped in their community over the years, and they respond with generosity, lavishly. George Bailey will receive “a hundredfold” what he gave away. So why does George despair?

My husband’s theory is that the problem with George is that he knows how to help others, but he doesn’t know how to ask for help.  To this I’ll add, he also doesn’t really understand the wider effect that his life of giving himself away has had on others. Only after Clarence the angel arranges for George to see the kind of life that his town and friends would have lived without him does he learn how much each one of his small actions did matter.

But what George Bailey learns from all of this is not that he is a great guy despite his problems. Rather, George learns that he already resides in a community of love and that this is what makes his life (and theirs) wonderful. Both his actions and others’ actions multiply love through their generosity. The film is full of the generous acts of nearly all of its characters, except Mr Potter. We see George’s mother’s willingness to lend out her fine china to a high school dance party, to his father’s willingness to let George leave family and town behind to pursue his dreams, to Mary’s decoration of the run down house for their honeymoon and her easy sacrifice of the honeymoon money to help out others, to the police officers who sing a duet to them while standing out in the rain.

Bedford Falls is a community of generous people who forget themselves and give themselves away, trustingly, sometimes even naively. Like the trusty servants whom the master gives the many talents, to spend freely, Bedford Falls is about a community of persons who give away their talents, and are repaid a hundred times over, as a community, for their giving it all away. George Bailey learns that he’s had a wonderful life because the adventure for which he had always yearned was already there all around him, all along.He is the “richest man in the world,” his brother Harry tells him, and his wealth is in all the relationships of both giving and receiving that he has cultivated over his many years.

George lives an extraordinary life for all the ordinariness of it that he once despised. He discovers that the most ordinary, everyday relationships is where the sacredness and wondrous is. Jesus’ birth, which we await in Advent, affirms the sacredness of the ordinary human life that God took on in the incarnation. Most of Jesus’ life will not be spent in ministry or in the Passion and Resurrection, and while these are crucial to understanding Jesus’s identity, we can start with the wonder of the Incarnation, that God took on human flesh and so made the ordinary and the human forever holy. In this Advent and into Christmas, we can reflect on the “extraordinary ordinary” all around us, most especially in our interconnections with one another.

When we give ourselves away, and receive the generosity constantly around us, our lives are wonderful.