It is late January, a nostalgic time for a couple hundred juniors and seniors who one or two years ago this month were jetting off for the green hills and azure skies of “il bel paese.” Yes, can’t you see her now? – Due Santi: her vineyard dappled in the celestial light of the Italian spring, birdsong playing in your ears, the sea distantly visible as you look in one direction and, when you turn your head and lift your eyes above the umbrella pines, il Papa’s Castel Gandolfo much nearer, just a lovely walk away. There are worse places, surely, to live, to work and to die in.
Oh, where have we heard words like those before? “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.” That’s George Bailey, of course, dutiful son, brother, husband and father, lousy businessman, and desperate man. Just as few places linger in the mind quite like Rome and its environs, so few films stay with one quite like Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to my mind the most profound moral statement in the history of Hollywood.
I trust you know the basic story. George Bailey, after a few years’ delay spent working for his father, is finally college-bound. He’s even going to precede school with his long dreamed-of trip to Europe. Then, suddenly, his father dies, leaving George first to settle the accounts of the Bailey Building and Loan (giving up his trip to Europe) and then to run the family business (giving up his college education). Born and raised in a small upstate New York village called Bedford Falls, 20-something George would like nothing more than to “shake the dust of this crummy little town” off his feet and “see the world.” The Rome semester was made for George Bailey.
But George Bailey was not made for the Rome semester, not for foreign travel of any kind or for a college education. He was made for Bedford Falls: made to marry a hometown girl, to rear his four children down the block from where his mother still lives, and to run the family business, building homes for and making loans to the “rabble” Henry Potter would have living in slums. It isn’t a bad life.
But like Ebenezer Scrooge in the second-greatest Christmas story, George lacks “eyes to see with and ears to hear with.” The wonder of his young life is as unknown to him the night he ponders suicide (on account of two-thousand dollars!) as to a “warped, frustrated old man” like Potter.
This movie can teach so much. Where a University of Dallas education orients our search for meaning both literally and figuratively toward Athens and Rome, George Bailey’s example shows us that the well-lived life is not dependent on a college education, on a semester in Italy, or on a proper appreciation of Homer, Vergil and Aquinas. Much more important is loyalty to a people and a place, understood as always doing right by one’s neighbor. Again and again George Bailey sacrifices time, money and opportunity to help the people of Bedford Falls. He loses something in this bargain: He only knows the Parthenon and the Pantheon from books. But what he gains is priceless: He needn’t read Aristotle to know what “eudaimonia” is.
In the end, the greatest lesson of maybe the greatest film can be roughly summarized thus: Happiness lies not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you get. George wanted to see the world, to go off to college, to “design new buildings” and “plan modern cities” – all far, far away from his crummy little town. Fate kept him home, and even denied him a proper honeymoon with his bride. But far from being the biggest loser in Bedford Falls, he wound up the biggest winner. It wasn’t just that George had dozens of friends and neighbors willing to help him out in his darkest hour, proving that “no man is a failure who has friends.” For true success in life is not predicated on the esteem of others. He was a winner because he had lived well. Because, when he was contemplating suicide on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve, an angel could come down from heaven and truthfully tell him: “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”
Let us live our lives so that, if it came to it, our own guardian angels could say no less of us.