We all know the basic story of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s your basic striver story, the kind that Americans love – George Bailey is trying to shake the dust of the crummy little town of Bedford Falls off his feet and he’s gonna see the world!
But of course a little thing called life gets in the way, and George is left suicidal on Christmas Eve.
And so unfolds the tale of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which can be deconstructed in two very American ways – the first half of It’s a Wonderful Life shows the power of one, one George Bailey, to make a difference. The second story, that comes together at the end, is the power of a group to make a difference.
In the movie, George is given “a chance to see what the world would be like without him.” During this dream sequence, his guardian angel Clarence tells him “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” We see how George’s impulses – from jumping to save his brother Harry from broken ice to his promise to keep a secret for his drugstore boss to his saving the family business and therefore the middle class in the small town – have changed the lives of so many near him.
We each experience this in our own ways. We have to admit that as small as our lives, goals, and actions are, we, as individuals, enrich the lives of our family members, friends, coworkers, and strangers. For every selfless decision George Bailey makes throughout the movie, we can think of dozens of other ways we do good deeds that change the course of many others’ lives.
By the end of the movie, we see the power of many. This is where the movie really gets me because it reminds me of the beauty of this country and what our so-called forefathers planned for us. We are a government of, by and for the people, and the super-sappy ending to “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an excellent example of that. In the end, George is visited by his lifelong list of friends and acquaintances who pool their money together to help get George out of debt.
Individually, we might not have much to give (time, money), but we each have a little. When you put together all those littles, you have a lot. As Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The citizens of Bedford Falls get together and change George Bailey’s world.
I just love the sense of community of that small town, and the (mostly) willful, joyful desire to do what’s right. Of course, it’s a movie, and a cheesy one at that, so everything is cut and dry and it’s obvious what needs to be done and we have an obvious protagonist in George and antagonist in Mr. Potter. The takeaway message of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that is so often lost in the cheese is one of goodwill, charity, and noble acts, and I think it’s important to take a moment and remember that change in a community is possible, change happens as a result of small and large acts and change happens when one person takes action just as well as when many people take action.
Change happens over time. Change isn’t always immediately gratifying or apparent, but over time – sometimes a lifetime even – it will start to show and make a difference.
It’s a story that can really make an activist’s heart happy – if you can get past the cheese.