Date: February 28, 2022
We just passed the 75th anniversary of the December 20, 1946 release of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Seventy-five years, can you believe it? Not so surprising to classic movie buffs and millions of Jimmy Stewart fans the world over, surely. The beloved movie, directed by Frank Capra, stars Jimmy Stewart in his first role since returning as a colonel from WWII, during which he served his country while stationed in the U.S. and England as a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps. In the movie, Jimmy plays George Bailey, an ambitious, kind-hearted dreamer whose life goes a different direction than he planned. Set in a small town not unlike Jimmy’s own hometown, Indiana, Pennsylvania, George’s aspirations are delayed over and over. One might ask if a movie set in the 1940s, when people communicated by telephones and telegrams (not texts and videos), can still be relevant and gain new fans after three-quarters of a century? You bet it can and does, maybe now more than ever.
Although its fame as a Christmas movie has endeared it to generations and cemented its place as an annual tradition for many families, the movie is actually driven not by a Christmas celebration but by the literal life or death struggle of a man who no longer sees value in living. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has big dreams from an early age. He longs to leave the town of Bedford Falls for travel and adventure. Sadly, his ambitions are continually thwarted by…well, life. Finally, after experiencing a setback so huge he can’t see a way around or through it, he decides he’s better off dead. His life insurance is worth more than he is.
Setbacks. For the last few years many of us have been experiencing them–financial, professional, physical, and mental–very much like George’s struggles. He never was able to travel as he dreamed due to family obligations. He sacrifices his savings to prevent the family business from closing, and, instead of attending college, he settles for a position at that business. Finally, a catastrophic financial blow causes him to contemplate suicide.
However, for those unfamiliar with the plot [spoiler alert], he’s saved through an odd encounter with an angel named Clarence and is given the chance to see how many lives he changed for the better through what he had only an hour before seen as a lifetime of missed opportunities. From boyhood, when he saved his brother’s life during a sledding mishap, on through his youth spent working in the family business, and into adulthood and marriage, the angel shows George just how much of an impact he had had on others. His friends’ and neighbors’ lives were better just by having known George.
Recently, like George, people all over the world have had their plans and dreams put on hold by a pandemic. Families have faced hardship and, sometimes, death. Researchers have recorded an increase in requests for treatment of anxiety and depression and more than a few businesses have had to close or limit their days or hours of service. In reaction to this crisis, happily, communities of all sizes are pulling together and supporting each other.
Facing unexpected changes in jobs, at school, and in financial circumstances, some people have responded by creating “bubbles” of cooperation. Neighbors look out for each other. Families in what might be unusually close quarters experience stronger bonds. Customers support their favorite restaurants and shops to prevent them from closing. In our community, Indiana County, and the surrounding areas, there’s been an increase in the number of food drives (always staffed by volunteers), the food banks are lengthening hours of operation, and community centers have created new programs for distributing hot meals that aid families living in outlying areas not served by public transportation.
“Pay It Forward” groups have sprung up everywhere on social media to prevent the waste of household goods, food, clothing, and services through donations of those with “extra” to those with less disposable income. Neighbors are going the extra mile to not just check on each other but to alleviate the loneliness of quarantining. In one case, a young girl drew pictures for her elderly neighbor, displaying them in the window for her to see and in return, the neighbor would post her own daily message–this provided an emotional connection and served as a way to make sure everyone was healthy and getting around okay.
Another recent example from our community was a plea posted on Facebook by a person concerned about his neighbor having enough firewood to heat his house. The man had been supplying his neighbor with loads of wood but was unable to continue with enough to meet his needs. Reaching out to the Indiana County Facebook community, he received dozens of suggestions and offers for help in just a few hours. An update assured everyone that the immediate need was fulfilled. This is so similar to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in that Clarence the angel shows George how much less happy and prosperous friends and neighbors would have been without knowing George. For example, George’s brother, Harry Bailey, instead dies sledding and doesn’t live to be a war hero, which surely spreads misfortune even wider than Bedford Falls and his own family.
Ultimately, George, having been shown how meaningful his sacrifices have been and how many lives he’s touched, rushes home and back to his simple (but important) life. Saved by Clarence–and by his wife Mary having spread the word that he is in trouble–George is surrounded by friends and neighbors pulling together to help him through the crisis. The result of a lifetime of sacrifice and community involvement is that his life, literally, is saved and proven to be of value. Who knows how many others each of us can touch by staying healthy, making sacrifices, and supporting our neighborhoods and communities? Doing so might save our lives someday, too.