It’s still a wonderful life
The holiday classic tells an important—if partial—truth
What if you could look in on your own life while standing outside it like a spectator? How might that reshape your perception of yourself and the impact your life has had on other lives? The Yuletide season, leading as it does into a new year, naturally prompts such self-reflection. But Christmas can sometimes be a high-pressure frenzy of unrealistic expectations, pressures, and anxiety that results not in the merry enjoyment of a high holiday or celebration of faith but in irritability and anticlimax.
Such frustrations can collude with grim weather, our general exhaustion, and the prospect of returning to work to sullen our mood and render any self-evaluation dark and troubling, leading to feelings of unease about life’s meaning, purpose, or value. Skimming the clinical literature suggests that entering a second Christmas under COVID—and the grave and manifold consequences of both the disease and measures to fight it—has only exacerbated the prevalence of such existential crises.
Our current, technocratic age has perhaps amplified such crises, but it didn’t create them. Premiering 75 years ago this week, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life embraces these very concerns. Though heralded as a holiday classic, it’s never been universally adored. Released in the aftermath of the sobering realities of the Second World War, it was lamented by some, then as now, as either overly sentimental or too grim to be joyous. To be sure, it does indulge in certain platitudes in its portrayal of George Bailey, a good and ambitious man so busy sacrificing his own happiness for others—most especially by serving as a bulwark between the poor and an unscrupulous businessman—that his own life seems to pass him by. Finally despairing over what he believes is his small and meaningless existence, Bailey wishes he had never been born. He gets his wish and through the eyes of a guardian angel, he sees the world as it would have been without him. The sorrows of it makes him realize the profound impact he has had on others.
Bailey’s dilemma captures much of the existential angst of the post-war era.
Bailey’s dilemma captures much of the existential angst of the post-war era. The French writer Albert Camus, just beginning to signal his greatness, published Myth of Sisyphus shortly before the release of It’s a Wonderful Life. Sisyphus recounts the ancient Greek story of the eponymous tragi-hero, condemned by the gods to push a boulder to the top of a mountain where it inevitably rolls back down, forcing him to start again. This never-ending drudgery reads like an elegy for the George Baileys of the world. Surprisingly, however, Camus insists that we “imagine Sisyphus happy.” While he always denied being an existentialist himself, Camus was no stranger to the mood. Given the conditions of the world, he suggested, we are all ultimately like Sisyphus. The seemingly absurd terms of our existence provoke desperate questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? What went wrong? Who can fix it? When? What’s next?
Frank Capra directed It’s a Wonderful Life toward the belief that these questions are partially answered through George Bailey’s proving the worth of the individual. Touching gently on religious themes, the film begins with a celestial conversation between angelic beings who, in answer to the prayers of Bailey’s friends and family, dispatch an angel to help Bailey and to prevent him from “throwing away God’s greatest gift” of life.
This grounding in permanent things, however modest, distances It’s a Wonderful Life from a purely existentialist interpretation. Where the existentialist might say that things have only such meaning as we imbue in them, George Bailey’s story suggests more objectivity than this. We will not, the movie insists, find meaning in accumulation and wealth or in living a life of high adventure. Nor should we seek it—to the lament of current sensibilities—in equity and justice, for villains, we learn, are not always punished nor wicked schemes always foiled. Neither will we necessarily find it in the work that we do per se.
So, while the film does champion certain platitudes, it does not, in the end, descend hopelessly into sentimentality. Rather, it takes the harder stance, following wisdom both classical and Hebraic, that there are not infinite ways toward the well-lived life. The Christian knows this. And while the Christ-follower will go further in recognizing that the value of human life is found in the love of He who made us, is ratified—as this season shows—in the price He was willing to pay to keep us, and is manifest by believers who answer the call He places on their lives, the story of George Bailey recognizes the important—if partial—truth that it is in living a life characterized by other-centered acts of self-giving that we find our best chance of living a good life—even a wonderful one.
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