It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is my favorite Christmas movie. It might even be my favorite movie, period. Like many people, I find the story of protagonist George Bailey—who sacrifices his own ambitions to serve his family, friends, and community, but does not realize all that his life means to others until his guardian angel shows him how diminished and bleak the world would be without him—poignant and inspiring.
Last Advent, my husband and I judged that our older sons could sit through the film. They were riveted, but I’m not sure how much they understood. The then-six-year-old spent a few days accurately mimicking the Sam Wainwright “hee-haw.” We could have done without that. Meanwhile, the then-four-year-old spent the same few days telling anyone who would listen that he would never watch that terrible movie again, because the villainous Mr. Potter—whom he recommended be immediately jailed forever—never faces any criminal penalties for his actions. We explained to him that while we shared his disdain for Mr. Potter, this was not really the point of the movie.
But what is the point of It’s A Wonderful Life? What formational wisdom, if any, can we glean from this 76-year-old film that has become a Christmas institution unto itself?
“Wonderful” and “happy” are not the same thing.
“Happy” is defined as: “enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure, satisfaction or joy.”
For most of the film, George is unhappy. He is frustrated, dissatisfied, and angry. He feels trapped, foregoing travel, college, and even his own honeymoon to steward the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan—a small business started by his father that provides home mortgage loans to working-class residents who would not otherwise be able to afford home ownership—through crisis after crisis.
“Wonderful” is defined as: “admirable or very good; excellent or splendid.” And through all his unhappiness, over many years, George does good for others. His character is excellent; he is a splendid friend. That’s why his life is wonderful.
Would George have been happier if, in his early twenties, he had let the Building and Loan collapse, gone to college, and lived a better-funded, less harried, more peaceful life? Probably. What about if, in his early forties, he accepted Mr. Potter’s offer of a high-paying job and lived a richer but less principled life, right there in his hometown? Almost certainly.
But “happy” is ephemeral; it’s about the emotions. It can be manipulated with fleeting sources of pleasure, with medications, and with all manner of changes in circumstances. “Wonderful,” by contrast, is lasting; it’s about the spirit, which only responds to what feeds our souls, as no food, drink, medication, or momentary pleasure can do.
Today, It’s a Wonderful Life’s emphasis on what is wonderful over what is happy—its central argument that a wonderful life is ultimately borne of recognizing that living for others is far more meaningful than living for oneself—is no longer just deeply aspirational, but also profoundly counter-cultural.
In our rapidly secularizing and increasingly lonely time, it is fashionable to elevate emotional reality (how I feel, how I identify) over spiritual reality (who I am called to be)—not just in practice (that was always true) but even in theory.
This is why, for many people, emotional reality now is spiritual reality.
In this conception of life, there is nothing higher about a person than how (s)he feels about his/her own life. This is the timeless misunderstanding against which It’s a Wonderful Life warns us, and the warning has never been more urgently needed.
Today, as ever, the daily complaints and broader dissatisfactions that diminish our daily happiness pale in comparison to the awesome wonder of our whole lives, measured by the extent to which we live for others.
Rootedness is worth the sacrifice.
In his 2019 book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal, Nebraska senator Ben Sasse discusses the widening gulf between the rootless, the rooted, and the stuck.
By “the rootless,” Sasse refers to Americans with college degrees that tend to center their lives on work, have the resources to live and raise children wherever their careers take them, and lead mostly anomic lives that are unconstrained by responsibility to specific places or institutions. By “the rooted,” Sasse refers to Americans that have the opportunity to live like their rootless peers, but choose to put down roots instead, remaining tied to family and/or tying themselves to local institutions and communities wherever they call home. And by “the stuck,” Sasse refers to those without the educational and/or socioeconomic resources to forge comfortable lives for themselves, which diminishes their prospects where they are and makes going anywhere else next to impossible.
George Bailey is the patron saint of rootedness. His life is a model of responsibility to family, friends, community, and the local institutions that support all three.
More than three quarters of a century after It’s a Wonderful Life was released, it is impossible for many of us to live quite like George, even if we wanted to. Not many places like the film’s Bedford Falls—where George’s mother, mother-in-law, and friends all live in the same community—still exist. And, to the extent that they do exist, they are often downwardly mobile places, comprised more of “the stuck” than “the rooted.” That’s partly because, fifty and seventy-five years ago, many people in George’s position did let their families’ businesses collapse and move to other places—sometimes (as George foregoes doing) for college and sometimes (as his brother Harry does) for marriage and a good job.
It would be a waste of time—and an indulgence in the kind of resentful navel-gazing that the film warns us against—to lament the reality that being rooted isn’t what it used to be. Wishing for a world in which most people live where they grew up, marry people they have known since childhood, and raise their children walking-distance from almost everyone they know won’t return us to the likes of Bedford Falls.
But rootedness is also broader and far less literal than that. Many people put down deep roots in places that are not where they grew up. Many others remain in the geographical vicinity of family and friends but live spiritually rootless lives anyway.
Being rooted is ultimately about investing in the people, places, communities, and institutions that we have a chance to serve in our lives—whether, like George, we are called to be of service in our hometown, or whether, like George’s younger brother, Harry, we are called to be of service somewhere else—not as means to an end but as ends in themselves.
Being generous toward others in this way requires diligence and responsibility, yes. But for many of us that are in a position to navigate between rootlessness and rootedness, that’s the easy part.
The harder part is recognizing that rootedness also requires humility, and a willingness to surrender some measure of the self-determination that we are so accustomed to exercising to the seeming chance of an all-knowing God.
After all, if we are people with the capacity to be rooted then we are also, by definition, people with the capacity to be rootless. So, why commit to this partner? Why give our lives to children? Why share in the stewardship of this community? Why pour our hearts into these friends? All of these places, institutions, and people are just the ones that happen to be in front of us right now. Aren’t there better options out there?
Maybe. But if we wait to start living for others, we are really living only for ourselves. And that damages and diminishes us even more than it hurts those to whom we could be of service.
It’s easy to see that Bedford Falls is a better place because of George Bailey. But it’s just as important for those of us with the opportunity to choose rootedness to recognize that George Bailey is also a better person because of Bedford Falls. And the ramifications of that reality live on, far beyond the scope and timeline of the film.
By the time that George’s fictional daughter, Zuzu, would have reached George’s age at the end of the movie, it would be the 1980’s. Who knows whether it would make sense for her to be in Bedford Falls?
But, one hopes, she would remember that her father thought more about what others needed than about what he wanted, and that he lived accordingly. That sacrifice is what makes a life wonderful.