“I know what I’m going to do for the next year, and the next year, and the year after that…I’m going to shake the dust off of this crummy old town and I’m going to see the world.”(1)
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is the classic film of Christmas holiday fare. It’s ubiquity on the airwaves belies its dismal performance at the box office when it was first released just after World War II.(2) Capra’s film follows the life of George Bailey in his small town. And while the film has a happy ending, it exposes the creeping despair and bitterness that comes from the loss of George’s dreams. The film offers a powerful visual of the gap that forms between knowing what George will do “the next year and the year after that” and the reality of living that leaves him wondering whether his is a wonderful life.
Despite the film’s often saccharine sentimentality, it nevertheless presents a realistic picture of lost or abandoned dreams. Like the film’s main character, George Bailey, many of us had dreams of “seeing the world” and “kicking the dust off” of our ordinary lives and existence. Our ideal plans and goals called us out into an ever-expanding future of possibility and adventure.
In this sense, It’s a Wonderful Life offers all who enter into its narrative a chance to look into the chasm between many cherished ideals and the often sober reality of our lives. This glimpse into what is often a gaping chasm of lost hopes and abandoned dreams offers a frightening opportunity to let go. Indeed, facing the death of ones’ dreams head on forces a moment of decision. Will we become bitter by fixating on what has been lost, or will we walk forward in hope on a path of yet unseen possibility?
For Christians, the classical language of faith offers resources in depth for facing the fact that life entails death; it cannot be circumnavigated or avoided. Those who follow the path of Christ are presented with a decision: will the giving up of aspects we suspect essential to our vision of a ‘wonderful’ life lead us to bitterness or to hope? The discipline of discipleship often reveals hands grasped tightly and tenaciously around ideals that must give way to new realities. Author M. Craig Barnes suggests that the journey away from our own sense of what makes for a wonderful life is actually the process of conversion. “It is impossible to follow Jesus and not be led away from something. That journey away from the former places and toward the new place is what converts us. Conversion is not simply the acceptance of a theological formula for eternal salvation. Of course it is that, but it is so much more. It is the discovery of God’s painful, beautiful, ongoing creativity along the way in our lives.”(3)
The Christian narrative takes those who seek to follow Jesus to the drama of the cross, and it extends an invitation to follow his example of willing surrender. “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.” As Jesus prophesied to Peter, this invitation is to a place “where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). The journey away from the former place is hard because we don’t want to abandon the places we think make for wonderful lives.
Yet, if we want to follow Jesus, we will have to abandon many, perhaps even all, of these cherished notions for our lives. We can choose to follow Jesus in his painful, beautiful death march to Golgotha—to die so that we may live—or we can retreat into what appears to be safe and certain ways of life. Significantly, Barnes argues that a wonderful life on our own terms is not actually a realistic option. “In spite of all our carefulness and hard work, we probably will not achieve the life of our dreams. In fact, our dreams are precisely the things that have abandoned us. But it is then that we hear the invitation of Jesus Christ, ‘Now is the opportunity to step out, walk forward and give your life to God.'”(5) It is a frightening invitation, to be sure, but one indeed that offers the possibility of a truly wonderful life.
Margaret Manning Shull is a counselor in Washington.
- Spoken by George Bailey in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Frank Capra, RKO Productions 1946, 60th Anniversary Edition.
- “The Making of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,'” narrated by Tom Bosley on “It’s A Wonderful Life: 60th Anniversary Edition,” Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006.
- M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life Through Unwanted Change (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 21.
- See Mark 8:27-38.(5) M. Craig Barnes, 28.