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It’s A Wonderful Life: Why George Bailey Never Left Bedford Falls

 "Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other."

“Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

All you can take with you is that which you've given away

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away”

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!

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Salt and Sugar: Surviving Valentine’s Day

About a week ago I found myself in the card aisle of a local CVS pharmacy.  I was there to pick out a birthday card, but I noticed a few men flipping through the Valentine’s Day cards.  They had such serious and determined expressions.  Here they were fulfilling their obligation to their girlfriend or wife.  I couldn’t help but smile.  Valentine’s Day can be such a source of aggravation for people in relationships, and an even greater source of misery for people out of them.   But is there a way for all of us, the single and the coupled, to find joy on this Hallmark dominated holiday?  Allow me to offer my own advice on making the best of a day that pours salt on the wounds of singularity, and forces many men (and women) to buy sugar for their sweety against their will.

First, I want to address Singles Awareness Day, or Valentine’s Day.  Now, I have much experience with this.  11 out of 12 years have been single years.  I have known many lonely holidays.  So I have had a lot of time to develop a philosophy on surviving as a single person.

As a single person I noticed one thing above all else, many people in relationships seem absolutely miserable.  Maybe I exaggerate a little, but in all honesty I would hear so much bellyaching about having to get something for Valentine’s Day, or having to go out somewhere.   This was somewhat pitiful, but also allowed me to keep a healthy perspective.  Perhaps not being in a relationship is a good thing.  I mean, if most people seem to be miserable anyway, maybe I’m not missing so much.  This is what I told myself many times.  “It is better to endure as a healthy single person than to have to endure an unhealthy relationship.”  Single people can be thankful that they are not in a miserable relationship.

Another thing to help out the single person on Valentine’s Day is to remember that they are free.  I mean this in two ways.  First, they are free to spend the day any way they want.  They are not obligated to buy their love anything, or take them out to dinner.  If they want, they can just stay home or smash mailboxes.  Second, they are free relationally.  The freedom of being single offers you the hope of finding someone great someday.  And if you’re lucky, you’ll find someone even better than you hoped.  Singles Awareness Day should be a celebration of freedom.

My advice is not to be bitter.  You’re alive, and that’s a good start.  Best not to take a bath in self-loathing.  Remember that relationships in themselves are not good or superior, it is the people in them that define them.

My advice for people in relationships on Valentine’s Day is to make the most of an opportunity to express your love.  Don’t look at it as an obligation.  If you get by with the bare minimum effort, you will reap your own harvest of mediocrity and lameness.  But if you make the day your own by showing the one you love how much they mean to you, it won’t be Valentine’s Day anymore.  It will be your day. Go a little above and beyond.  Give a little bit more thought.  I am certain that a gift from the heart, obtained with some effort, and delivered with some level of thoughtfulness will always be enough for the one you love.  It’s not about the chocolates or the cards or the flowers.  These things are symbols for something greater.  If you don’t know what that is, you’re hopeless.

I hope you have someone to love on Valentine’s Day.

I’m looking at you, Nicole Thurling.

Thanksgiving Doesn’t Need a Friend

 

Every year it’s the same old song and dance.  The stores put out the Christmas stuff in late October, and people complain about how early it is.  Then the radio stations play Christmas music right after Halloween, and people complain about how early it is.  And every year I hear over and over again that it’s not even Thanksgiving yet!  What about Thanksgiving?  And all of these people come out of the woodwork to proclaim that they prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas.  And I’m supposed to congratulate them on their fine taste in holidays.

No.

Here’s the thing; if Thanksgiving were anything spectacular it wouldn’t be threatened by Christmas.  But it’s really not very special.  Hear me out.

What is Thanksgiving?  It’s a day to eat a lot of good food with people you care about (hopefully).  Do we honestly remember the pilgrims and the Indians?  No, we do not.  We aren’t honoring them with our feasting.  We just set a day aside to eat until we burst.  For some people, this happens all of the time.  They eat a lot of food on a regular basis.  So in that way, Thanksgiving is nothing special.

But what about giving thanks?  Sure, the day may inspire some to be more thankful than usual.  And yes, many charitable people and organizations use the day as a means to provide for the needy.  But honestly, is that what you love about Thanksgiving?  If it were, I have a feeling that you would be doing those things more than once a year.

People love to eat good food.  That’s the selling point of Thanksgiving.

Now consider Christmas.  It has a season, first of all.  There is a Christmas season.  There is a feel and a spirit to this season.  It is captured in holiday music, decorations, and yes, movies.  Christmas has hundreds and hundreds of songs and movies.  Thanksgiving has Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and the Macy’s parade.  There is no spirit of Thanksgiving beyond the day.  And if you want to argue that there is a spirit of Thanksgiving, I would respond that the spirit of Christmas includes thanksgiving.

Christmas also has two awesome figures at the center.  For the secular, Santa is the symbol of the holiday.  He is giving and jolly.  Children love him since he rewards them with presents.  People dress up as him, and his picture pops up everywhere.  For the Christians, Jesus is the figure at the center (hopefully).  Christmas celebrates the moment in history when God humbled Himself and became a human baby for the sake of mankind’s salvation.  This is the source of the joy and thanksgiving at Christmas.  The living God came to live as one of us.  Thanksgiving has a turkey.

Thanksgiving is about the big and delicious meal.  But don’t we tend to eat the same type of big and delicious meal at Christmas anyway?  You get the food on top of the gifts and the joy.

This leads me to believe that the battle between Christmas and Thanksgiving is more about what Thanksgiving isn’t than it is about what Thanksgiving is.  Surely, people must not like the wonderful aspects of the Christmas season if they are placing it below a simple feast day.

So don’t have pity on Thanksgiving.  Don’t humor it with your shallow praises.  It is about the food.  Appreciate it for what it is.  Don’t befriend it, hoping to make Christmas jealous.  Christmas is way too good to care.