I have watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” a number of times over the years and have always enjoyed it as classic holiday fare, but I can’t say that it’s been one of my favorite old films. (There, I said it. It’s taken me a long time to admit that.) I’ve wanted to love it, I’ve felt I should love it, but something about it has always rubbed me the wrong way. An article I read today made me realize why I’ve struggled with this movie.
Joe Carter, writing in First Thoughts blog, does a character study of George Bailey and the protagonist, Howard Roark, of Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead. In his essay, he compares the sacrifices of these two men and their purposes:
While both represent the artistic, ambitious, talented individual who is surrounded by stifling mediocrity, each character’s story unfolds in dramatically different fashion. Rand portrays Roark as a demigod-like hero who refuses to subordinate his self-centered ego for the wishes of society. Capra, in stark contrast, portrays Bailey as an amiable but flawed man who becomes a hero precisely because he has chosen to subordinate his self-centered ego to society.
There it is, in that last sentence, the reason this movie has bothered me all these years: George Bailey dared to be a flawed, self-centered man who, in spite of his flaws, is the hero of the story! I have always thought of this movie as some sentimental escape to make me feel good and restore my faith in good old-fashioned fashionedness. Or as some reminder that my life is just as wonderful and worthy of saving as good ol’ George Bailey’s. But no, the truth found in this movie is an inconvenient one. It is a truth that tells us that we are not naturally really wonderful people with wonderful lives that everyone should be just pleased-as-punch that we’re around to make them feel wonderful, too. It is a truth that tells us that mortifying our own desires and sacrificing for other people’s good is what brings true joy. So, for all the anger and rudeness that George Bailey manifests throughout the movie, the fact that he continually sets aside his own desires for the good of others is the lesson Capra is attempting to portray. In our 21st-century of the “Me and My Needs” mantra, the lesson of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is often completely missed. We find ourselves a bit miffed with everyone and everything in the movie that doesn’t help our friend, George Bailey, live his best life now. We may even get miffed at George Bailey for not having a more purpose-driven life. I mean, really, George? Can’t you tell some people that you have higher aspirations for your life and some personal goals that need to be met to find personal fulfillment? And we find ourselves miffed–as I did–that George Bailey would complain about anything. If you’re going to be the hero of a nice, sentimental film, then my nice, modern sensibilities ask that you at least sacrifice with a smile on your face for the sake of your own self-esteem. After all, you’re worth it! At the end of this movie, however, it’s all about how a frustrated, flawed guy can still be a hero. George Bailey needed to live so that others could do better in their life.
As I’ve contemplated Joe Carter’s essay, especially as it relates to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I’ve been astounded at how my own sinful flesh has colored my perception of this classic movie. I’ve bristled at how George Bailey always gets the short end of the stick, at how he gets angry about things but continues to take it, and how he doesn’t even get a new house or new job out of the whole mess. I’ve even been frustrated with his character for being ornery about his life. I mean, if you’re going to let people and circumstances run over you, then you have no right to complain. Actually, Frank Capra’s just showing us a flawed and sinful man who, even though he struggles with it, does the right thing by not demanding his own rights. There is a humility in acknowledging that this character that I’ve never really liked that much because I thought he was too whiny and complaining is actually a far better person than I am. I complain and get frustrated about my life like George Bailey, but I rarely turn around and subsequently sacrifice myself for the good of others. In the end, George Bailey’s life is shown to be important not because of his own personal accomplishments, but because his life has allowed other people to achieve glory, prestige, and even life. This humility offends our modern sensibilities but is right in line with the teaching of Scripture. George Bailey is loving his neighbor as himself. And it is perhaps no coincidence that in a film portraying such unnatural behavior, there is a very huge supernatural element that dominates the storyline. I don’t know much about Frank Capra, but his films seem to reflect an honor for basic biblical truths. “It’s a Wonderful Life” shows us that even with our sinful natures, God still calls us to sacrificial obedience; and when we obey, He lavishes on us riches of joy and purpose that cannot compare with this world. At the end of the movie, George Bailey is still in the exact same circumstances he was in right before his jump from the bridge, but the joy he has found in being shown God’s purpose for him through a life of sacrificing for others is seen in the face of a man surrounded by his family, singing praises to his King. It is time once again for our hearts to be challenged by the truths shown in this film, but it may be that we will have to undo the years of damage self-esteem books, pop-psychology, and our own sinful natures have wrought.
Now please excuse me while I humble myself and watch this movie with fresh eyes and a–hopefully–more teachable heart.