If you've never seen It's a Wonderful Life, you need to. I'm not much of a "black-n-white" movie fan, but this one has become very dear to my heart. It tells such a heart-warming, timeless story that can make you look at your life in a whole new way.
For those who haven't seen it, there's the not-so-quick run-down. The movie stars James Stewart as George Bailey, which is reason enough to watch it. They just don't make 'em like Jimmy Stewart anymore. As a young boy, George Bailey saves his younger brother (Harry) when he falls into the ice and, as a result, George gets an ear infection and loses the hearing in his left ear. In his childhood job at a local pharmacy, George notices that his boss, Mr. Gower, accidentally puts poisonous pills in a customer's prescription. George makes Mr. Gower realize his accident, saving the customer's life and Mr. Gower's business. Growing up, George dreams of traveling the world, building tall skyscrapers, and getting out of his small town of Bedford Falls.
George's father owns a small building and loan association, that provides loans to people to build houses. Instead of going to college when he graduates high school, George helps his father at the building and loan for four years until his younger brother Harry can take over so that George can go to college. The night before George is supposed to leave for his worldly pre-college travels, his father has a stroke and dies. With the risk of the building and loan association being dissolved and the home loans being taken over by the local ogre, Mr. Potter, George is forced to stay in Bedford Falls and assume responsibility for the family business...a course of action contrary to the big hopes and dreams he had of traveling the world.
George falls in love with and marries Mary (played by Donna Reed) - a childhood sweetheart who swears at very young age to love George til the day she dies. In one of the best movie scenes ever (which I understand was filmed in one take), George reluctantly realizes his love for Mary:
George and Mary get married and, just as they're leaving for their honeymoon, the Great Depression hits, threatening the building and loan association and forcing George and Mary to use their own honeymoon money to bail out the business. As time goes on, George and Mary have four kids, buy an old dilapidated house that needs major repairs, and struggle financially. Then one day - Christmas Eve Day - George's uncle misplaces an $8,000 deposit for the building and loan association, causing the evil Mr. Potter to swear out a warrant for George's arrest for misappropriation of funds. George begs Mr. Potter to help him, offering Potter his life insurance policy, which only has $500 in equity. Mr. Potter scoffs at him, declaring that George is worth more dead than alive.
Consequently, in modern lingo, George goes on a bender. In his drunken stooper, he goes to a bridge and contemplates suicide, looking at his life insurance policy. Just then, another man jumps into the river, screaming for help. George dives in after him, saving the man's life. The man turns out to be George's Guardian Angel, Clarence, who was sent from Heaven to help George realize the value of his life. In response to George's wish that he'd never been born, Clarence lets George see how life would have been if he'd never existed. His brother Harry would have died in the ice and, as a result, all the people that his brother Harry saved in World War II also would have died because Harry wouldn't have been alive. Mr. Gower would have killed his customer with the poison and his life would have been destroyed. Mary would have become an "old maid." People who George helped get homes with the building and loan association would be stuck in Mr. Potter's slums. Through all of this, Clarence gives George the opportunity that none of us will ever have - the chance to see the ripple effect our presence has on those around us, and how different the world would be if we never existed.
While Clarence is giving George the tour of the world without George Bailey, Mary is telling folks in town about George's trouble with the missing $8,000. Once George snaps out of Clarence's spell, he runs home to his family. Waiting for him are reporters and police ready to take him to jail...but he doesn't care. He's just so happy to be home with his family. Then, in another memorable scene, Mary bursts in, with the entire town behind her, coming in to give money to George to bail him out of trouble. All of the people that George had helped throughout his life, asking nothing in return, came to his rescue. The final scene in the movie moves me to tears every time:
While everyone is singing Auld Lang Syne, George finds a message from his Guardian Angel, Clarence: "Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings." (After Clarence helps George see the value in his life, Clarence finally gets his angel wings).
The reason I love this movie so much is that it's a good reminder of what success really means. George has two competing personalities in this movie: The one personality that wanted to leave Bedford Falls in search of a bigger and better life, that was always in search of something "else," and the second one that realizes success doesn't come in the form of money or riches. You can be the "richest man in town," while still being the poorest in terms of money. It's not your travels, your money, your house, or your job that give meaning to your life; rather, it's the love of your friends and family and the love that you show them. It's our relationships that enrich our lives.
I generally spend a lot of time acting like the first George - the one who's always looking for something better, wanting more money, more "things." I spend a lot of time comparing myself to other people, especially when it comes to triathlons or my success at work. I think we all do that, at least to some extent. We see someone with a huge house or nice car and we wish we had their financial freedom. We see someone who's faster or stronger than us and we feel too fat, too slow, too weak. We see someone prettier or more handsome, and we want their looks and all the "perks" that come with being beautiful.
All of those superficial things, however, can't fill the void. In the movie, Mr. Potter had more money than God, and he was a "warped, frustrated old fool" (in George's words). It's the second George that finally gets it - that realizes the money, riches, and success, won't provide you with a full life. The richness of our lives can be measured by our relationships; and, not by the number of relationships, but by the quality. I'd rather have 1 good friend upon whom I could call in any emergency, than 100 friends who would be too busy to come help.
As you look back over this past year, which George have you been? Have you been the one who's always wanting more, more, more, or have you been the one who realizes that your cup overfloweth with the loved ones in your life? It's been a hard economic year for so many people and I don't mean to demean the hardships that many of you have encountered; but, through it all, there are blessings. Even when you're peering over the ledge wondering how much you're life is worth, remember that you and your presence alone - not your financial worth - have a positive influence in this world. Do you really understand the positive effect that your presence has on other people? I'm sure that all of you, in some way, have given wings to someone, whether you knew it or not. Through some action, some small word, some smile, you've moved someone and made an impression. Don't ever underestimate your power to leave behind something positive, and remember that next time you're devaluing your life by constantly wanting more. The love you give is worth more than any tangible thing you can acquire. Maybe in 2012 we can we all try to be a little more like the second George...