January 06, 2008

Its a Wonderfully Hard Life


“Watch It’s a Wonderful Life” my Lt said, “It’ll give you the answer”

I watched it and he may have been right.

How can some lame classic of 20th century American culture hold so many answers? I don’t know, but it does.

It’s not like the truth embodied in film. Like every human construction, I’m sure it is flawed. Its more like an arrow pointing in the right direction.

It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t a religion or not really even a code to live by. The final culminating message of the movie is stated bluntly by the words of a simple minded angel Clarence, “Remember no man is a failure who has friends” Not much to live by but its true.

The picture it gives of the world is positive. George Baily is saved by his friends. Everyone lives happily ever after. The hero wins and the villain is defeated. The goodness of the human heart prevails under testing.

Its sort of necessary that a Christmas movie leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy inside or else we wouldn’t feel so inclined to watch it at Christmas time. However life is not always fair. And being a good guy like George Baily doesn’t mean that life is going to be automatically rosy in the end. This is my only criticism of the film

I’ll first give you a brief synopsis of the movie and then discuss my thoughts in greater detail…

George is an ambitious, talented and handsome young man fresh out of high school. Hes ready to build his future with skill and hard work. He radiates confidence and he knows inside there is no limit to what he can become. He envisions himself as an industrious American builder of railways, bridges and skyscrapers. He imagines using his financial success to explore the entire globe. The future holds wonder, riches and promise.

Just as his plans are taking off his father dies and he is forced to take over the family business, a building and loan company. The motivating factor in his decision was the deep sense of community and responsibility that his father past along. George gave up his future for the sake of a simple principle his father lived his life by: individuals and community are more valuable than riches.

He refuses to allow the villain, Mr. Potter, the richest man in town, to oppress the population of Bedford Falls with his greed. He saves many of his friends and family from suffering harsh fates.

Four years after his decision to take his Dad’s business he gets married and spends the rest of his young adult and middle life years as a family man of five children and a genuine servant of the community. He lives modestly and within his means. He grows and prospers but never becomes wealthy. He gets by.

George dreams never really disappear but he continually sacrifices for the sake of his community. He give up his dreams for theirs.

Then disaster strikes in the form of a absent minded bank manager. George finds himself on the brink of total financial failure and possible scandal. In the blink of an eye everything he has build for himself is about to collapse and he quickly becomes bitter and despairing.

In response to prayers from his family and friends an angel shows up to teach him what is truly valuable in life and thus saves him from his suicidal despair. He sees what his life would have been like if he had never been born. He sees how much good he has done in the world, all the lives he has touched and how empty his life would be without his loved ones.

In the end of the movie, he is saved by the sacrifices of those who he sacrificed so much for.

The deep moral of the story is not “be good to your friends because someday your gonna need them” but rather “true wealth is measured not by what is in your bank account but by the love for your fellow human beings which you have built up in your heart”

The point is even if he had failed financially he would still have had reason to live. Helping those that one comes into contact with holds greater rewards than those that can be bought with money.

He was wealthy because he had given himself to others. He sacrificed and therefore beheld the reward in his community and family.

So I’ll ask an important question.

Will those that care about others more than themselves ultimately win the greatest rewards?

Its a Wonderful Life is wrong about one thing. Giving yourself to others doesn’t guaranteed financial benefits in this world. If anything it almost ensures the opposite. It most definitely involves pain and a lot of it. Maybe great joy as well. But definitely pain.

In real life George Baily would have gone to jail and his friends would have felt pity. Half of them would not have given George so much credit for their own success. And the other half would have been too irresponsible with their own money to be of service to him. He would have rotted in jail and everyday he would say to himself “I gave you all so much, and this is how you treat me…”

A better ending of the movie would have had him start a loan company in prison so that prisoners could buy Television sets.

Tell me if one serves those suffering in inner city DC, Detroit, New Orleans, Baghdad and Beirut, will he be filled with joy or a deep sense of the hopelessness of mankind?

The true state of the world is ugly and the task to repair it, daunting. Who has taken proper account of the darkness of the human heart and the great capacity of men to abuse each other so that one can say with confidence, man will always show love when the correct measure of love has been shown to him?

Can love prevail in the darkest coldest, hungriest and most oppressed recesses of the world? Will those that give their life for others in this lifetime receive the greatest reward?

Should we all give our lives daily to the principle of Christ’s life? Is this the only hope for our world? and simultaneously the only hope for the salvation of our own souls? In the sacrifice do we find life? In sacrifice to we find the greatest reward.

The only worthy mission in life may very well be “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

But its not easy. And don’t plan on receiving your rewards in the form of social status, favors or monetary compensation.

Try tomorrow to exercise that simple maxim of Christ and tell me if you are not disappointed in the benefits. Its not that don’t believe it’s worthy, I only mean to express that as an idea it runs counter to the ways of the world and the habits we are seeped in as humans.


Hi! My name is Matthew Halbe.

I'm a web developer working at Vistaprint in Silver Spring Maryland. I have four kids, August, Liesel, Levi and Clementine, and a wonderful wife, Dory.

I spent 6 years as an enlisted soldier in the Army before coming out to the DC area for school and work.

My main interests are web development, US-Iran Relations and documentary films.

email - github - linkedin - twitter