Taking “A Wonderful Life” Beyond Christmas

If you are like many American families, then it is likely that a well-loved part of your Christmas family tradition involves re-watching Christmas film favorites that you and your family have been watching for as long as you can remember. You can probably quote most of the lines from your family’s favorite holiday films. Christmas movies are notorious (er… well-known) for being ultimate feel-good stories, to the point of often seeming sappy and ridiculous. (Hallmark, I’m looking at you.) But it’s the season. So for the most part we smile with the sap and go along with it. As long as you feel good at the end, that’s what counts.

But I believe our true Christmas favorites are movies we go to again and again because they have a meaning that transcends the season, and an impact that reaches beyond presents and pretty lights and a sort of fuzzy bonhomie. One of these films – one that is a favorite of many, and for good reason, is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. On some level, most of us feel for George Bailey. More than that – most of us have at some point felt like George Bailey. Like we were meant for bigger better things, and somehow missed out.

Young George speaks for most ambitious young people when he tells his father, “Oh, now Pop, I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office… Oh, I’m sorry Pop, I didn’t mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe… I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.”

Who doesn’t want to do something big and important? The thing It’s a Wonderful Life does, one of the things that makes this movie such a timeless classic, one that you can watch year after year without it becoming a joke, is show us “big and important” from a different angle. From the angle of daily lives, touching other daily lives, in ways that make each life better. When George wishes himself never born, it is this very thing that Clarence the angel has to show him to make him see that his life has been so very, very far from wasted.

The thing George Bailey learns, one of the things that makes this movie such a timeless classic, one that you can watch year after year without it becoming a joke, is that even the small things you do in life are important. Even the smallest things make a difference. Small things you do with your family, in your neighborhood, with your colleagues at work. Maybe you didn’t save your brother from drowning in a frozen lake as a kid. But maybe you’ve had the chance to do some of the other things George did – that he didn’t think much about at the time, but that he later learned had a huge impact.

As Clarence puts it, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

By being a responsible employee, and brave enough to point out a mistake when he saw it, George changed Mr. Gower’s life.

By being kind and generous, he changed Violet’s life.

By just doing his job for the Building and Loan, the job he sometimes hated, that kept him “cooped up” in his small town instead of going abroad to see the world, he changed the lives of Ernie and Uncle Billy and Mr. Martini and just about everyone else in Bedford Falls.

He did this not by going around trying to save people. But just by doing the things he did every day with all the kindness and integrity he could muster. By just trying to be the best human being he could.

Sadly, in today’s world, it takes relatively very little to change someone’s day just by making a positive impression. So few people focus on living with the intention of showing integrity and kindness and generosity where they can. A few months ago, while hauling two horses by myself, my trailer got a flat tire on the side of a major interstate. This was mid-afternoon, with plenty of traffic going by, and I was obviously a young woman, alone, with horses on board, attempting to change a trailer tire, miles from the nearest exit. When I was nearly done with the job, having been there, obviously broken down, for over half an hour, an old woman pulled over behind me, and although she had no more idea what she was doing than I really did, she stopped. And because no one else on that busy interstate had bothered to stop, her sympathy and moral support spoke huge volumes. She made me feel slightly better about the human population as a whole. And I can tell you that I wasn’t feeling terribly fondly of humans at that point. My calm, patient mares in the trailer seemed to be showing more class than the hundreds of cars rushing merrily down the interstate.

Don’t be outclassed by a horse. It doesn’t always take a huge effort. It doesn’t always require great expense. It doesn’t always demand a lot of time. Sometimes all you have to do is notice.

So as you go about just your daily lives the few weeks left in the year, no matter how busy you are, or how stressful the holidays seem, how full of pretty, distracting lights, and worries about the right presents, and money, and having to work when you’d rather be sitting in front of a fireplace with family… don’t forget to look around you.

Or really, don’t forget to just continue to be the best human you can be – on your drive to work, in your interactions with customers, with coworkers, with friends, and family. It takes very little to make someone’s day better. And even random acts on our part – things that can feel like just part of the-day-to-day grind, can actually be a special thing for someone else in ways we would never realize.

And if you are feeling really bold, take this beyond Christmas. Beyond the season of generosity and goodwill. And maybe I’m sounding like a sappy Christmas movie now, but every day can be a day of generosity and goodwill if you choose it to be.

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