As per tradition, my mom and I watched It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas day, cozy and sleepy after an early morning. Although I’ve seen this movie countless times, it struck me very differently than ever before. Perhaps it is because this year has been so turbulent, so full of disappointed hopes and thwarted expectations, but I identified with George Bailey in a completely new way.
To anyone familiar with the film, George Bailey, the protagonist, is iconic. He is the pinnacle of the classic film hero. Although misfortune nearly drives him to suicide, George is considered a man of intense integrity whose happy ending is well-deserved. This year, however, I realized that this is not exactly the case. I found myself identifying with George not because he’s virtuous and charitable, but because he is also as selfish and quick-tempered as I tend to be—indeed, as we all tend to be—when our dreams are dashed to pieces. What makes this film truly wonderful is not the justly happy ending of a wholly good man but, rather, the preventative grace that saves him from himself.
In an iconic beginning scene, a young George is working at a soda fountain and young Mary orders an ice cream. He asks if she wants coconut and she replies that she does not like it.
“You don’t like coconuts?” replies George. “Don’t you know where coconuts come from?”
He proceeds to tell her why she should like coconut, dumping heaps of it on her ice cream. Perhaps this is due to absent-mindedness, though this is not generally characteristic of George. More likely, he has decided that Mary should like coconuts because he likes them. Mary, sweetly, doesn’t correct him, establishing her forbearing nature. The ice cream is never eaten, though, for George rushes off to help someone in need. Here we see that George genuinely desires good and, as when he saved his brother at the cost of his hearing, does his best to pursue it even at great personal sacrifice. Still, we see continued instances throughout the movie when George acts selfishly, torn between his own ambitions and the obligations of family and community.
For example, although George falls for Mary, he rails against his affections, telling her that he never wants to marry because he only ever wants to do as he pleases for the rest of his life. As hurtful as he is toward Mary and as stubbornly as he clings to this autonomy, love overcomes him and he marries her.
Similarly, George lashes out against his father, belittling the “crummy” family business and declaring that he wants more out of his life’s work. Despite this arrogant aspiration, his father’s demise requires George to take over the business. Again, he is forced to abandon his dreams of adventure and authority.
I felt keenly George’s struggle as I watched this year. I know what it is to yearn for something more, be it further study, an important career, or the independence of travel. These are not in themselves bad things, but George nearly chose them over and above a loving wife, a family legacy, a charitable career, and the host of friendships that ended up being his salvation.
I know that I am not unique in mourning the lost opportunities, experiences, and relationships of 2020. For a while, I was indignant in the face of these difficulties; however, they forced me to return (kicking and screaming at times) to what truly matters—family, community, service. I did not get to teach at a university as I’d initially planned, for instance, but it has been amazing to work with and learn from my high schoolers. I did not get to live alone and unfettered in Scotland, but I am more thankful than ever for my family and friends, who provided a soft place to land. Were it not for sudden and unsought changes of situation, I would not have been brought to the place of greater humility and hope in which I now find myself.
When George reaches his most desperate moment, it is not merely because of one horrible day but a lifetime of thwarted dreams. Just when all seems lost, Providence interferes (sketchy theology aside) to send a guardian angel. This angel has passively observed George’s life heretofore but directly interferes only at this make-or-break moment. It seems, though, that a grander, more subtle Providence was yet present throughout all of George’s life, providing for him in surprising ways.
I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” in which he considers the painful cure for fallen humanity:
The whole earth is our hospitalT.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” IV
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
Reading this back in February, I was struck that Eliot sees “paternal care” as not only present throughout our lives, but “preventing us everywhere.” The word “prevent” may, of course, mean to “precede” or “go before,” but it also carries the connotations of stopping or redirecting. This stanza has haunted me throughout 2020. With every canceled plan, I’ve returned to this idea, trusting that disrupted hopes are providential redirections, in which the Lord goes before me, saving me from my self-made plans for something better.
What would have happened to George had an unexpected relationship not interfered with his desire for autonomy? Without Mary’s calming presence, he was tempestuous, evasive, and brusque. I’d argue that this unexpected relationship saved him from the further hardening of his heart.
And what if he had not had to take over the family business? Not only would many in George’s community have suffered, but he would have relentlessly pursued a wealth which could never truly make him “the richest man in Bedford Falls” as he is hailed in the concluding scene.
What if George had been free to travel and live entirely as he pleased? His community would have lost a vital piece, certainly, but he himself would have been lost. He would not have grown into the integrity for which his character is known. Indeed, the roles and relationships that George found so restrictive may not only have served others but saved him. Although manifest as an angel at the film’s climax, preventative grace is present throughout It’s a Wonderful Life and, indeed, our own lives as believers. Had it not been for such grace, George may have become independent, prestigious, and prosperous; instead, he was made relational, humble, and generous. I am convicted and encouraged by this, recalling the old phrase, “There but for grace, go I.” We may feel the angst of closed doors and forgone opportunities, but George Bailey’s character arc reminds us that grace is active even and especially in these moments of shattered goals and altered plans. More than a story of a good man receiving just reward, It’s a Wonderful Life portrays the subtle working of a grace that saves us from ourselves.