One of the real joys of every holiday season is to watch again at least some of Frank Capra’s 1946 American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. My favorite part is the last five minutes or so. I can almost recite the dialogue from memory, but I still choke up every time I watch it.
Coming back to Bedford Falls is like reconnecting with old friends. There is George Bailey, of course, and Mary. And so many others, like Bert the cop, Ernie the cabbie, Uncle Billy and Cousin Eustice, Sam Wainwright, Mr. Gower, Mr. Martini, Violet, Annie. And Zuzu with her petals.
Film critics and the general public repeatedly rank Wonderful Life as one of the best movies ever made. Frank Capra revealed that it was his favorite of all the many films he directed. Jimmie Stewart also considered it a favorite.
The success of Wonderful Life rests squarely upon its powerful moral message. That is, each of us, if we simply live our life with basic honesty and common caring decency will, over time, have a tremendous impact for good on the lives of those we touch and, because of that, also on the lives of others who are touched by those we have touched.
We may not realize the good we do simply by leading what often seems to be a very ordinary existence. George certainly did not realize the good he had done until Clarence showed him the terrible state of affairs that would have come to exist in Pottersville without him, and all that he did to prevent this from happening by living the life he did.
George saved his brother Harry from drowning, so Harry was able later to save his shipmates in the Pacific. George prevented Mr. Gower from making a potentially fatal mistake when filling a prescription. And by keeping the Bailey Building & Loan in operation, George helped countless neighbors escape an otherwise miserable life in Potter’s slums.
George never had the material wealth and glamorous life that define success for so many. He had much more. He had friends. Friends who prayed for him when they heard he was in trouble. Friends who gave every dollar they could to help replace the bank deposit misplaced by Uncle Billy and stolen by old man Potter.
As Clarence showed George, and the rest of us, “no man is a failure who has friends.” Indeed, with friends, living in a close-knit community that you have helped create, you are successful and rich in the only ways that truly matter. You could even be, as Harry described George, “the richest man in town.”
We love George Bailey because we know that he represents the best in us. We choke up at the end of the movie because we know, in our hearts, this is how things should be. But they are not. Surrounded by so much disorder, decay, crime, corruption, despairing loneliness, and cold cruelty, we seem to be living in a twenty-first century version of Pottersville. How did we get here? What can we do?
Of all the millions of Americans who have seen Wonderful Life, those in our political class need to take another look and pay close attention. They need to realize that their job, their only job, is to preserve, protect, defend, and revitalize, the institutions of constitutional self-government that were established by the Founders precisely for the purpose of fostering the kind of vibrant sustaining civil society depicted in Wonderful Life. A civil society based on family, faith, and community, a community of friends who pray for each other, help each other, sustain each other.
One hundred years of so-called “progressive government” have virtually destroyed American civil society, replacing community leaders with government program administrators, self-help initiatives with unfunded government handouts, and community-based common sense with arrogant expert incompetence.
The holidays are a time for redemption and renewal. They are a time for realizing one’s mistakes and changing for the better; for realizing how things should be. George Bailey did that. If enough of our political class can do that, if they can stop destroying civil society and start working to restore it, then we can begin to recover the community that so richly blessed George and his neighbors.
That would mean a wonderful life for all of us. Because we all want to live in Bedford Falls.
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