One of my favorite Christmas movies is the 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie tells the story of George Bailey, a good-hearted but discouraged man who is given the unique experience of seeing the world as if he'd never been born. He learns a good deal along the way, and we can learn from his journey as well. If you haven't seen the movie or need a refresher, I've provided one in the next two paragraphs. If like me you've watched this holiday film several times this year, continue on to find 10 Things I Learned from George Bailey.
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It's a Wonderful Life Synopsis
George is a benevolent man who sacrifices his dream of traveling the world in order to run his family’s business, a bank that provides loans based on trust and consequently homes for families who otherwise could not afford them. The wealthy and conniving Mr. Potter continually tries to take over The Building and Loan, and time and again George chooses to do what’s in the best interest of the people of his community instead of advancing his career or making his life more comfortable. He watches while his brother and friends achieve great success and wonders if his holding fast to principle is worth it.
In a series of unfortunate events, including the loss of a large sum of money which could result in bankruptcy, George becomes so distraught that he makes his way to a snowy bridge, intending to end his life. Before he can jump, a kind old man, who is actually an angel named Clarence on a mission to earn his wings, jumps into the raging river below and shouts for help. George dives into the river to save Clarence, while Clarence insists that he jumped in to save George. Clarence then takes George on a walk through town, showing him what the people and places familiar to him would be like if he’d never been born. George is surprised to see how different the world is without him in it and realizes that he actually does have a wonderful life. When he returns to reality, the friends and neighbors whom George has helped over the years rally together to give money in order to save the bank and encourage George, and Clarence has earned his wings.
10 Things I Learned from George Bailey
1. Discouragement is the worst! It’s a Wonderful Life opens on several stars in the night sky—presumably God and several angels—talking about George’s predicament. Clarence, George's guardian angel, says, “Is he sick?” The “God” being says, “No. Worse! He's discouraged.” Discouragement can be nearly debilitating, and perhaps it's such a formidable foe because it flies under the radar. Major crises like death, illness, and divorce scream at us, while discouragement whispers to us. Because our lives are more obviously affected by the “big” things, we’re more likely to seek help and growth through them. “Little” issues like discouragement don’t seem to warrant our time and attention, so they’re allowed to live on unchecked, and there’s nothing “little” about the influence they have on our lives.
2. The most valuable investments are relational. George and his wife experience the joy of helping a poor family move into their first home, and immediately following the celebration George watches his old buddy Sam pull up in a fancy car, and Sam’s wife steps out wearing a fur coat. George sees the contrast between the life he could have had and that which he’s chosen numerous times and still continues to value people over possessions. He celebrates the successes of those in his life—his brother’s receiving a congressional medal of honor among them—even when he’s experiencing hardship.
3. Boundaries are good. Though the primary lesson we learn from George is one of putting others before oneself, we see another side to his benevolence: someone says of George, “he never thinks of himself; that’s why he's in trouble.” No one could live the life George Bailey lived and not experience some serious burnout. There’s a fine line between being willing to help anyone at any time and having no boundaries which protect yourself and your family. Prioritizing oneself may seem selfish to the outside observer, but those who take care of their own selves are much healthier and better equipped to help others.
4. Unresolved anger eventually erupts. George experienced so many setbacks, it’s no wonder he grabbed his uncle by the collar, lashed out at his children, and yelled at his daughter’s school teacher; he had good reason to be mad. Anger needs an outlet, and knowing this can help us find an appropriate channel that works for us so that we don’t hurt our loved ones with our explosions.
5. Help often comes in a different way than we expect. When the odd Clarence tells George that he is his guardian angel, George says sarcastically, “Well, you look about like the kind of an angel I’d get.” Help often comes to us similarly—in a different package then we expected. Recently I was in a situation in which I had to ask for help from someone towards whom I’ve had many judgmental thoughts. Help was given, and I was humbled.
6. Prayer works. George prayed desperately in the bar: “Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.” His prayer was not pretty or articulate, but it moved God to send Clarence. I believe God would rather have our desperation and honesty than our polish and pretension any day.
7. Each man’s life touches many others. Seeing his town as if he’d never been born helped George realize that he had been a powerful force for good in his community. For instance, George may have felt like he wasn’t making much of a difference when he loaned a little money to his struggling friend, Violet, but in the universe in which he didn’t exist she was fighting with the police on the street. We don't get to see what others' lives would be like if we weren't in them, but we should never underestimate the power of a small act of kindness, a friendly conversation, or a humble service.
8. We need other people. George never found the lost $8,000, but his friends and neighbors saved the day by donating enough money to cover the loss. Without their help, George’s bank would have gone under. I’m pretty independent, so sometimes I forget that I need other people. This week a friend was able to encourage me in a way that only she could have done, and it brought me some hope that I could never have manufactured on my own.
9. There will always be naysayers. When George and Mary walk down the aisle, we see Mary’s mother crying, and they aren’t tears of joy. In the end she comes around and donates money to help George’s cause. Some of our critics will change their minds about us too. But not all of them will, just as Mr. Potter remains greedy and grouchy, and we shouldn’t be surprised by this.
10. Helping others helps us. On occasion when I’ve been feeling sorry for myself for some reason or another, my husband has suggested that I help someone else so that I’ll feel better. I admit I haven’t been too appreciative of that recommendation, but he is right—when we’re feeling blue, helping others takes the focus off of ourselves, gives us a perspective check, and benefits someone else. Saving Clarence from drowning saved George, and helping George allowed Clarence to earn his wings. And George Bailey’s life and legacy have helped us too!
It's a wonderful life! Merry Christmas.