This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There's a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by me, on Santa's list of 2013 gift posts.
In contemplating what to write for this Blog Secret Santa experience, a quote eventually cut across the ineffective din that filled my headspace: "No man is a failure who has friends." This quote was apt, as I had initially questioned my belonging in Blog Secret Santa. Luckily, I had a dear friend who convinced me otherwise. The phrase is one I am familiar with, because my father has been saying it for years (it's his favorite). I had an inkling it was from It's a Wonderful Life, but I just had to check; sure enough, I was right. My initial hunch was that George Bailey suffered from a form of Impostor Syndrome, and that (like me) his remedy was his friends. I decided to jump down this particular rabbit hole and explore.
Firstly, though, I'll be honest. I haven’t ever cared for It's a Wonderful Life, Christmas movie or no. I've often gotten on my high horse about a very superficial aspect of the movie, that of George’s wife, Mary. For a chunk of my life (until this year) I was a librarian, and took quite a lot of offense to Mary’s alternate life. Sans George, Mary becomes the tired stereotype of a librarian; in the script she is described as having "Glasses, no make-up, lips compressed, elbows close to body. She looks flat and dried up, and extremely self-satisfied and efficient." For this sole reason, I denounced the movie for years. The only time I ever did see it was inadvertently through my annual viewing of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, where in one scene It's a Wonderful Life is on television. Every year I rolled my eyes... until this one.
In rewatching It's a Wonderful Life, I realized my original thesis of George having Impostor Syndrome was a bit of a stretch. Though I could couch my supposition by saying he has a kind of Impostor Syndrome, it didn't feel right. After all, George doesn't think he is a failure despite his successes, because he believes his life itself is a failure, and that it would have been better for everyone if he had never been born (as becomes his wish in the movie's darkest hour).
What I found most odd about watching the movie again is noticing the narrative. The framing of the story is a religious one, and that of a conceit. Angels, prayers, wings... George’s glimpse of a George-less reality could have easily been attained through a drunken stupor’s dream. Much like Thomas Jefferson’s Bible (which excludes Jesus' miracles, mentions of divinity, the Resurrection, and most other supernatural elements), I see this movie as being more impactful without the non-corporeal elements, for the spiritual intervention takes away from the real heroes -- that of George's family and friends.
It is his wife who diligently works behind the scenes to find out what emergency it is that sends George reeling, and all the while, rallies the town to his cause. The entire town, having benefited from George's good and giving nature, give back to him many times over to make up for his deficit. It's the emotional high point of the movie, and it bears so much weight because we've become familiarized to the context of George's life, and what the world without him would mean. No matter how George comes to realize what his life means to others (and himself), it is his friends that save him, not a host of angels.
This reasoning is found throughout the movie, most notably in the phrase that got me started: "No man is a failure who has friends," as George reads in a book Clarence gives to him. The more subtle message of the story is found in George's place of work. Hanging on a wall is the saying, "All you can take with you is that which is given away." Taken together, this story shows us you cannot have one without the other, precisely because each informs the other. This is the antidote to our own fears and self-deprecations, as George had (and what nearly did my participation in, if it weren't for the goodness of friends). Tend to your friends and give much, you'll never know what you get back. For as Clarence says:
Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?