Category Archives: Life Lessons
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12
You need to see It’s A Wonderful Life and you need to see it immediately. It’s difficult for me to understand how an American citizen can successfully dodge this most classic of films. What heroic lengths one must go to avoid their television during the Christmas season. This is a film that receives near universal praise from the viewing public, and is a staple of the American Christmas tradition. Every year, NBC ritualistically plays It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve night to be shared by all in the land. If you haven’t seen it, do so at your nearest convenience and don’t bother reading any further.
Today I’m writing to my old Building & Loan pals about a subject that I personally haven’t seen addressed in my perusing of internet articles and discussion boards. Everyone knows that George Bailey wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world. Walking home after the high school dance George says to Mary:
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
Of course, we know that George never does any of those things. And as far as we’re told, George never even leaves town. It’s like he’s living his own version of The Truman Show where forces have worked to keep him from stepping foot outside the borders of his little bubble. A man with strong desires to move up and out from his place of origin is destined to stay put indefinitely. How can this be? If George Bailey wants out so badly, what’s preventing him from getting his wish? Time and time again he has an opportunity to leave, but extenuating circumstances seem to beat him back like a pebble getting pushed onto shore by relentless crashing waves. Poor George, right? Well, maybe not. And that is what I want to talk about. Did George Bailey have to stay in Bedford Falls, and what do his actions reveal about the deeper desires of his heart?
The way I see it, there are 7 critical moments where George could have chosen a different path, allowing him to leave town to pursue his dreams. I’ll cover them quickly for you.
- Pa Bailey’s Death: When George’s father dies he chooses to forgo a trip to Europe in favor of taking care of his father’s business.
- Potter Moves to Dissolve the Building & Loan: Mr. Potter tries to convince the board that Bedford Falls no longer needs the B&L. George gives an impassioned speech about his father’s character and the reasons why his fellow citizens need the B&L to continue. The board decides that if George stays on they will keep the business alive. George chooses to give up college and lets his brother Harry go in his stead.
- Harry Gets Married & Breaks His Promise: When Harry returns from college, George learns that he has a wife and a new career. Unfortunately, the plan was that Harry would take over for George, giving him the chance to get an education and leave Bedford Falls. George chooses not to make a fuss and, though we don’t see the exchange, it appears that he doesn’t hold Harry to his original agreement.
- The Ground Floor in Plastics: This one is easily overshadowed by the loving embrace that follows, but when Sam Wainwright offers George an opportunity to get in on plastics, he effectively misses an opportunity to make a fortune. Sam even acknowledges that George turned him down in a later scene for the sake of sticking by the B&L.
- George Marries Mary: Now, this might be somewhat controversial for lovers of the film, but I see George’s marriage as another choice that results in him staying in town. Consider how fiercely he tries to resist his attraction to her. He knows that marrying Mary is another tie to Bedford Falls and another step away from the free life he wanted to live.
- The Bank Run: During the Great Depression, the citizens of Bedford Falls panic and rush to the bank to withdraw their funds. Those who have money at the B&L want George to give them everything they have, but George reminds them that it doesn’t work that way. He sacrifices his honeymoon and $2,000 of his own money to keep the B&L open. He could have ignored it all and went on his honeymoon, or he could have let the B&L collapse. But he fought to keep it open, choosing to stay tied down to it.
- Potter Offers George A Job: If you can’t beat ’em join ’em. Mr. Potter realizes that he would be better off paying George Bailey a fortune (about $300,000 a year in today’s money) than competing with him any longer. George quickly realizes that he can’t accept this deal with the Devil and storms out of the building. He chooses to stay with the B&L, giving up his last chance to be a rich world traveler.
You could look at all of these things as external factors that prevent George from pursuing his dreams, but at the end of the day it’s critical to realize that George made a choice at every critical juncture. If he wanted to get out more than anything else he would have left to visit Europe after attending his father’s funeral. Even if he stayed a while, he could have let the board dissolve the B&L. He could have fought with Harry to keep him in Bedford Falls, and so on and so forth. Yet, George Bailey stays in a town he wants to leave and works at a job that robs him of his dreams. There must be something greater below the surface.
Above all else, George Bailey is driven by the love he has for his father. Consider every major choice he makes. Every choice he makes reflects a desire to uphold his father’s “high ideals” and image. His whole life plays out in his shadow. He has the same job, co-workers, passion to serve his community, and even the same enemy in Mr. Potter. George wants to live his own life, but he ends up living his father’s life. He lives for his father. Before facing the frightened and angry crowd, George takes a moment to look at his father’s picture. Underneath it says, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” This is the core belief of George’s father, and the core belief that George adopts throughout the film.
The reason George almost kills himself is that he has lived according to his father’s ideals without experiencing the gratification promised by them. George has given himself away: his dreams, his money, his pride. But when he is faced with jail-time and scandal and ruin, he looks back at a life lived for others as a complete waste. Not only has he wasted his life, he has come to believe that his father was wrong. Perhaps that terrible belief, the belief that his father was a fool who led him to a life of ruin, is what really made him want to jump into that icy water. The man who taught him right from wrong becomes unreliable. Mr. Potter, who tells George that he’s worth more dead than alive, now has more credibility. Mr. Potter tells George what he already fears, that his life of sacrifice for the benefit of others was in vain. All evidence points to the falsehood that his father now represents.
If not for divine intervention, George would have killed himself, and Mr. Potter would have viewed the whole affair as an affirmation of his warped worldview. The true turning point comes when George turns to another father for help.
Clarence, a guardian angel, is sent to show him the value of his life by giving him a glimpse of what the world would be like without him. George is brought to a point where he desperately wants to live again, and God gives George his life back, but not as it was before. All of the people that he sacrificed for, all of the hope deferred to give hope to others finally comes back in a joyous celebration of George’s worth within the community. Now it’s clear that his life was not a waste, and that his father is worthy of all the love and respect George lived to give.
Within all of us is this conflict between our desires and beliefs. George wanted to see the world and do great big things, but his beliefs about his father and the work he did caused George to deny his dreams. He served his community through the Building & Loan, all the while keeping Mr. Potter from harming the town. When it appeared that he had denied himself for no good reason, George despaired at the thought of a wasted life lived in the shadow of a fool. But the reality of God, the ultimate source of the meaning both George and his father lived for, redeemed the whole story. The focal point of George Bailey’s life is his father, and the linchpin of It’s A Wonderful Life is God the Father.
So Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building & Loan!
I haven’t written anything like this in a long time. I used to write about philosophical topics on a regular basis, and it seemed to flow naturally, but for some reason I lost that flow. Now I’m attempting to pick it up again, if just for this one post. What I’m about to write has come out of much thinking and first-hand experience. There were many factors that brought me to this realization, and I think I’ve let it stew quite long enough. I have to say, I feel like an athlete who hasn’t worked out in months, so forgive me if this reads like a torn ligament. Gee, I haven’t even really started yet.
How often have you heard of this business about relative truth? You know, the idea that there is no one absolute Truth (capital T) about life, therefore each of us is left to come up with our own truth (lower case t) based on our limited perceptions. I’ve heard it many times in my life, and I can share one instance with you now. In a college class I sat in a lecture hall with over 100 students. One day the professor asked, “Who out there believes in absolute Truth?” Of the 100 students, I counted 3 hands, including mine. Later on, during a smaller discussion class, I was asked to explain myself. I shared my beliefs about the world and God, and then I figured I got them when I said that everyone dies. Clearly it’s true that everyone dies! You’d think I would have converted the whole lot of them, but instead I ended up arguing with a girl who was offended by my truth claims. Isn’t that the way? Anyway, I want you to consider this concept and to accept that it is a real belief held by many. Maybe it’s not a fully formed belief, like a religious or political doctrine, but it appears to exist as a modern default perception about the world: at least for many. Remember, 97 out of 100 college students didn’t raise their hands.
Since the last presidential election, I have been experiencing a minor identity crisis. You see, I got pretty passionate about that election as I focused intensely on my own political perceptions about the world. I figuratively saw red, taking a steady dose of talk radio and Fox News. In the end, everyone I voted for lost and I went to bed physically ill. I had lost myself in politics, and it took crushing defeat to shake me loose again. Since then I have had to reflect on what it means to define myself as a conservative, and, more importantly, I have had to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. The experience makes me think of this scene in The Dark Knight Rises.
It’s the futile battle that I was fighting. Each punch(argument or way of reasoning) that I threw came back with greater force until I was inevitably knocked down and defeated by what had become the bane of my existence. I know this sounds very dramatic, but remember that I was so invested in politics that I literally developed a cold when Barack Obama won re-election. I perceived the world through a political lens that made it nearly impossible to see the truth of my situation. By the time I realized that I had made politics into an idol, I was flat on my back, wallowing in defeat. I found the truth, but only after I was broken.
The truth that I found came out of a more humble position. During the election cycle, I had become prideful of my “rightness” to the point where I lost sight of the truth of my folly. My folly was my obsession with politics, and particularly the faith I was misplacing in my conservative candidates. Certainly this must have been clear to those who knew me well, and I can say that at least one of my friends tried to show me the truth. Once again, I didn’t see things clearly until I was broken (humbled) by defeat.
The Bible is quite clear on this subject of pride and humility when it comes to one’s proximity to the truth. Wise King Solomon, who lived about three-thousand years ago, wrote down many proverbs that are recorded in the Bible. One of his most famous proverbs is:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:17)
This might seem like an odd thing to say, but at the heart of it is an understanding of pride and humility. To fear the Lord is to live with the perspective that you are not the highest authority in your life. Imagine if a child acted as if their parents didn’t exist. Do you see any way in which that child grows up healthy and well-adjusted? No, if a child chooses to go his or her own way, they will live with an ever-increasing pride that will blind them from any truths that don’t fit their particular desires or inflated self-image. It’s a child who views his or her parents with reverence, who acts with an understanding that they probably don’t know better than their mother or father, that learns to see the world outside of their desires. If you are your own best authority for truth, can’t you see how much harder it will be to see and accept any truth that challenges your pride? How much truth is outside of the small space between our heads? Solomon also wrote, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” (Proverbs 21:2) The principle is simple, humility allows us to see the truth outside of ourselves, while pride keeps us stuck in ourselves, and limited to our own perceptions.
There are billions of truths (lower-case t) in the world, but there is only one Truth. What I have seen time and time again in my life is that the humble are usually much closer to Truth than the proud. The proud are slaves to themselves, and they can’t see past their own feelings and beliefs. The humble have learned, often through difficult circumstances, that they are not the greatest authority on what is true. They understand that the world is more than what they may feel, and the world is more than a canvas to be painted by their own experiences.
To apply this to politics in America, just ask yourself where you see pride. Is there pride on the far-left and the far right? is there pride in Washington? Is there pride on MSNBC and Fox News? Are people seeking to stroke their own egos by conflating faith and politics and forming an American identity based on pride? Where do you see humility? Where do you see it? Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is Pope Francis. He has defined the beginning of his time in the Catholic Church’s highest position by going low, focusing on service and poverty. He has denied himself many of the luxuries afforded by his office in order to connect with the people. That is humility. He is closer to the Truth, isn’t he?
Finally, I will return to the example I started with The Dark Knight Rises. After Bruce Wayne is broken by Bane, he is cast into a hopeless prison and doomed to watch the destruction of his city. He builds his body and tries desperately to climb out of the prison. Each time, he ties a rope around himself and can’t make the final jump onto a ledge that would lead to freedom. Lost in a dream, Bruce sees a time in his life where he fell down a well and his father came to lift him up. His father asks, “Why do we fall, Bruce?” He wakes up in a cold sweat and receives a word from a blind man in a nearby cell. The prisoner tells Bruce that he lacks the fear necessary to make the climb. He tells him he must climb “as the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.” Fear, in this case, and when it comes to the fear of the Lord, is about having a right perspective: a humble perspective. Without humility, the climb is impossible. Without becoming like a child, and recognizing the higher authority — the Truth outside yourself — you will be weighed down by your own pride. Bruce didn’t have to listen to the blind man. Climbing without a rope is probably suicide. But he was desperate to get out, and humbled by his inability to do so. He was ready to listen, and to begin the climb of faith.
It is possible to get closer to Truth, but it only begins with the letting go of pride. Difficult circumstances can forcefully strip us of pride, but it is up to us whether that is the beginning of our humble climb or the beginning of an endless search at the bottom of the pit for any shred of our former glory. The first step toward Truth is a step down.
Where can I rest my head?
Today we watched Barack Obama deliver his second inaugural address. On the day that we honor Martin Luther King Jr. we watched our first black president begin his second term as commander-in-chief. Many are elated and it truly is an important moment in American history. If you’re an American you should feel some sense of pride in your president on a day like this. This is the next step in the hard struggle for freedom for all Americans. And certainly, I appreciate the historical significance of it all. So why do I feel the way I do? Why am I not thrilled?
Let me bring you up to speed. For a significant portion of 2012 I was heavily invested in the presidential election. I followed every story as it broke and I looked into the candidates that interested me. Through research and discussion I chiseled away at my political positions until they hardened into bronze beliefs. Fox News and talk radio washed over my being as I prepared for the great battle of our age between big government tax and spend liberals and small government fiscally responsible conservatives. Obama was an enemy to “freedom” and somehow hated the very core of what America was, and no matter who replaced him that person would be an improvement. When it came to Romney, I found a way to like and support him as the better alternative. After the first debate I really got excited about the prospect of a conservative victory and increased my political presence on Facebook. Post after post I passionately made a plea for conservative principles. Right before the election I started to get feedback from friends that I had become too zealous and my words were losing their power. Even those who agreed with my politics were becoming annoyed. Admittedly, I was swept up in it. And then, after months of passionate reasoning and arguing, came the election. Oh, the election. I can sum it up in nicely in five words: Everyone…I…Voted…For…Lost.
After months of investing myself in politics I felt the awesome pain of total defeat. Seriously, even the little people I voted for lost. And to top it all off, I came down with a bad cold amidst the slaughter. Right before falling asleep, I spoke on the phone with my friend Steve who bet me a dozen Cadbury eggs that Obama would win. Though he assured me that everything would be ok, I went to bed physically ill, emotionally exhausted, mentally strained, and spiritually shaken. It was the sleep of a lost soul floating aimlessly in a hostile political sea.
So these past months have been a time of humble self-reflection. But they have also been a time of unease. You see, I’m truly struggling with my political identity. I’m in the midst of an identity crisis, you could say. If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ve probably gathered that I have long wrestled with my conservative principles in an increasingly liberal culture. For instance, today my president said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.” Alright, so all that talk about gay marriage must be over. Now I’m the bad guy if I don’t compromise my beliefs about marriage and morality. And at the same time I recognize that gays have been treated with a special disdain within my Christian conservative community, and it’s hard not to view my side as the aggressors who are in the wrong. Why is homosexuality uniquely wretched while divorce is basically accepted? Where does evolving culture end and timeless truth begin?
So I’ve described to you my current political state. My party has become a national joke and lost its ability to speak with authority to the greater culture. There’s no Republican version of Obama. My core political beliefs don’t have a champion in the arena and so I’m left to wander for a while in the wilderness. Meanwhile, I’m wrestling with what it means to be a Christian in America today. It’s all quite humbling, and I believe in my heart that I will come out of it a better man. I just wish, in the meantime, I had somewhere to rest my head.
Take a look at that amaryllis plant. Do you notice something strange about its appearance? Its skinny green stem shoots up over a foot while a fully formed flower sprouts straight from the bulb. This is not how an amaryllis is supposed to grow.
It should look like this:
The stems grow long out of the bulb before blossoming out of the top. This plant is well-developed and quite beautiful. There is even new growth sprouting up with the promise of more flowers. When the conditions are right, an amaryllis will bloom in a spectacular fashion.
Growing up in the “country” with a dad who kept a serious garden, I learned much about plant life. I learned the values of cultivating and appropriate watering. I learned that different varieties have unique needs when it comes to fertilization and sunlight. But I didn’t just receive an education on how to keep plants alive; that’s not the true purpose of a garden. The purpose of a garden is to produce fruit.
When I say fruit, I don’t just mean apples and oranges. I am referring to any desired product. So in the case of something like parsley or oregano, the fruit is in the leaves. With potato plants, the fruit is in the roots. The fruit of flowering plants, like that amaryllis, is the flowers themselves. Fruit is the reason you grow in the first place.
Plants do a curious thing when they are perfectly content. As my father says, “If a plant is too happy it will make a lot of nice looking leaves, but not much fruit.” He likes to recall the early years of his garden when his older neighbors would stop by to poke fun at him for his pepper plants. “Nice big plants you got there!”, they would say. My dad didn’t know at the time that it was possible for pepper plants to be too happy. He figured that if they liked a little fertilizer they must like a lot of fertilizer. But when the plants are living it up in comfort, they aren’t too concerned about making fruit. They’re like the grasshopper in that story with the ants. He lives in comfort all summer while the ants are storing for the winter, and when the winter comes he’s in a lot of trouble because he has no food. When you think about it, the whole reason a plant makes fruit is to pass its life to the next generation (or germination if you like). Fruit is evidence of a type of wisdom within the plant; a wisdom that prepares it for hard times ahead. Plants that are too content to make fruit are foolish, so to speak.
So what about that funny looking amaryllis plant? It was on track to grow normally until a small child (my cousin’s son, Sam) decided to test its durability. If you look at the picture you can see where the stem was bent, about a third of the way up. That unexpected calamity left the plant hunched over, looking sad and defeated. But over the next week the stem slowly straightened again, and a fresh blossom appeared out of the bulb. In no time at all a new flower bloomed at the base. This was how the amaryllis plant responded to adversity: to make fruit. With no care for its looks, or concern for being different from the other plants, it straightened up and turned tragedy into new life. Yes, it had to mature faster than it would have liked, but it had the wisdom to mature. And now that it has time to grow in a safe environment, I expected new growth to shoot up the way it was intended.
We all experience adversity, and it is how we respond to it that determines our outcomes. Will we learn from our pain and mistakes and grow in character, or will we let fear and bitterness keep us bent over and without fruit? Likewise, when the times are good and we are content, will we grow foolish and forget the fruit that our lives are meant to produce? Fruit like patience, kindness, courage, perseverance, discipline, and love. Wisdom cries out to us from many places: even a broken amaryllis plant.