Thanks to the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is a household name to many Americans. But his story is a radical one. He has big dreams that are left unfulfilled. He doesn’t “stay true to himself.” He gets kicked down over, and over, and over again. Although the protagonist of the film, he is decidedly unheroic, by modern standards. If George Bailey’s story was told in 2018, he would leave Bedford Falls to chase his dreams, he would self-actualize with a sidekick angel who helps him find the power within himself, and most likely he would defeat the evil Mr. Potter and kick him right out of town.
But none of these things happen. In many ways, It’s a Wonderful Life is a story of frustration. It’s not a wonderful life at all, not for George Bailey. If you’ve seen the movie—and you probably have, as it’s quintessential Christmas viewing—you are aware that after a lifetime of suffering, George gets to the end of his rope near the conclusion of the film. Broken and drunk in a bar, he cries out to God, and his guardian angel comes down to save him. In this pivotal moment, there is a little bit of twisted theology: a guardian angel bent on earning his wings sent on a “mission” to gain them through helping a desperate human—as if God deals in petty work incentives. But we can forgive the film writers for this bit of silliness in the same way we wink at a show like The Good Place, because the desire for wings is not really what the visit of the angel Clarence is about. Nor is the movie about what Clarence goes on to show George, which on the surface—and thanks in large part to the title of the film—seems to be a message of, “Look how good your life actually is—how good it has been all along. You don’t really want to kill yourself… do you?” This message also carries with it a certain amount of guilt. “Shouldn’t you be thankful, George, for all the good things in your life? Don’t you feel grateful now?”
At face value, it’s certainly not a bad message—that life is precious, even when we can’t see it, that our lives touch many people’s lives. And if this was all It’s a Wonderful Life was about, it would still be a good movie. But It’s a Wonderful Life is not a good movie, it’s a great movie, and the title theme, as illustrated by the events of the final quarter of the film, leave so much unexamined.If we’re not willing to give of ourselves for the communities in which God has placed us, what will be the cost of the absence of our virtue?
Earlier that night, on Christmas Eve, George Bailey stood on a bridge ready to kill himself. And nothing Clarence showed him changed his circumstances. The good things in his life hadn’t seemed good at the time, and some of them weren’t good—not for him. Clarence may have helped to change George’s perspective, but Clarence did nothing to change the fact that George Bailey lived a life of circumstances he found personally challenging, oftentimes demeaning, and terribly unfulfilling.
Clarence saves George’s life and earns his own wings, and George gains perspective. But I think George learns a lot more that fateful Christmas Eve—more than the simple lesson that he has a life worth living and friends who love him, whose lives he had touched. When Clarence shows George what Bedford Falls would have been like if George had never been born, he reveals to him much more than just what a wonderful life George had lived: Clarence shows George how much his personal virtue had impacted a community, even though it had cost George so much. Herein lies the better message of It’s a Wonderful Life, but the better message is also a harder message. Die to yourself, daily. Die, and die again. It’s a story of how one man stood in the gap for one small town, shielding its soul from a sure slide into certain depravity. What George Bailey gave of himself, time and time again—and often reluctantly and to his own personal detriment—became the lifeblood of the people of Bedford Falls.
Most of the film is devoted to showing us these things about George’s life. From the deafness he suffers in one ear—physical disability—to having to miss out on college—loss of opportunity—to taking a job he despises at the building and loan—professional dissatisfaction and loss of dreams—to personally backing his clients in time of need—financial hardship—to moving into a money-pit house he hates—self-sacrifice for his wife… Every step of George Bailey’s path is one of virtuous self-denial. Sometimes he takes these steps with great reluctance, but he takes them because his conscience won’t allow him to do otherwise. He takes them because he must not allow the avaricious Mr. Potter to take over Bedford Falls, and, for whatever reason, he is the one person positioned to stop Mr. Potter. It’s a role George didn’t ask for, a role he never wanted, and a role he could have walked away from at any time if he’d ever chosen to be true to himself, but he doesn’t. George Bailey gives everything he has for his community, and even then, it demands more. It seems to demand his very life.
When George Bailey cries out to God, God’s answer is not an easy one. Die to yourself some more, George. Continue doing the hard things. Dive into the river and save an old man from drowning. When George pulls Clarence out, Clarence shows him that although the price he paid for virtue was costly, he was the one man who could pay it, thereby standing against a great tide of evil. For all the lives George Bailey touched throughout his life, what he really held back through his (often small) virtuous actions was utter depravity and darkness. He saved countless lives, he prevented financial ruin, he elevated the lowly, he prevented the establishment of institutions degrading to women, he built a community for families where instead there would have been a graveyard. For as costly as George’s virtue was to him personally, the absence of his virtue would have cost his community far more.
Virtue should have a communal aspect. In our age of roaring individualism, this is something we might need to be reminded of. In Rome, the word virtus—from which we derive virtue—denoted greatness, valor, and courage, and a virtuous Roman was often one who did great service to the state (it was a male trait—the female equivalent was prudence). In watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I was reminded of a legendary Roman who did for Rome as George Bailey did for Bedford Falls, although in far more Roman fashion.
Once in a time of great need, Horatius, the Keeper of the Gate, stood forth and volunteered to protect the bridge over the Tiber River into Rome in the face of a horde of invaders set on sacking the Eternal City. The forces defending Rome needed time to hew the bridge down, and if no one protected the bridge to buy them time, the destruction of Rome was certain. Horatius, knowing he was most likely going to his death, said that if two others would stand with him, he would stand at the bridge and fight.
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late. 220
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,
“And for the tender mother 225
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,— 230
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?
“Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me, 235
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three:
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?” 240
Two others stood with Horatius at the bridge, and they held back the invading horde until their allies were able to cleave the bridge from under them, at which point Horatius’ two supporters fled back to safety, leaving him to defend the falling bridge alone.
Alone stood brave Horatius,
But constant still in mind,—
Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
And the broad flood behind.
(“Horatius at the Bridge”)
And when it looked like Horatius would die as the bridge collapsed, he threw himself into the Tiber River and swam to safety, having saved Rome through his virtus.
Horatius lived, and the people of Rome sang songs and wrote poems about him—they even built a statue of him. The ancient Roman historians insist he existed, although we don’t know if he did or not. Whether a real man or a character in a story—as George Bailey—Horatius was another man on a bridge. He was not there to kill himself in desperation and brokenness, but he was there willing to die to stand in the gap for his people and his community. His virtue ended up costing him far less, but it was—at least for one important moment of his life—of a very similar sort to the slow and faithful and costly virtue of George Bailey.
What does costly virtue look like? Costly virtue sometimes does look like brokenness, and when we practice virtue, we might find ourselves, as George, weeping at a bar. In practicing costly virtue, we imitate Christ, who was no stranger to giving all he had in service to others—to giving all he had to not just hold back evil, but defeat it. And when we find ourselves broken because of the cost of our virtue, that is also an imitation of Christ, who wept and sweated blood in a garden. It probably won’t look like actually giving up our lives—not for most of us in the West—but George Bailey gives us a good picture of what it might look like for the average, struggling person. Giving that last dollar when we need it for ourselves, forgoing that vacation we’ve saved every last penny for, sacrificing our life-long dreams. The world says we are nothing if we don’t live for ourselves, but God says we must die to ourselves in order to live. Like George Bailey, we may never leave our “Bedford Falls,” but if we’re not willing to give of ourselves for the communities in which God has placed us, what will be the cost of the absence of our virtue?
Are we willing to be the George Baileys for our own communities? George, who was no less brave than Horatius, even if it brought him to a place of brokenness. Are we willing to stand at the bridge and give in tangible ways to our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies? To give whether they deserve it or not, and whether or not it benefits us? To set aside our ambitions and our dreams, to sometimes defer our own hope for the sake of the hope of others? Jesus kept no hope back for himself when he sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane and gave himself over to be the hope of the world. It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that virtue is a strength of moral character. It calls us to lives of virtue as well as lives of civic duty. It says, essentially, that a life of personal virtue should lead to a life of civic virtue as well. For the Christian, this should cause us to stop and ponder: how does our personal virtue impact our communities for good, or our lack of virtue impact it for ill? We cannot pretend our lives touch no one. Intentionally or unintentionally, do we stand at the bridge? It’s not silly, it’s not cheap, and no angels will get wings when we choose the virtuous path—nor will anyone build statues to remember us by—but God can use one person at the bridge to turn back encroaching darkness. And that’s what makes a life well-lived one that’s truly wonderful.