It’s a Wonderful Life. Often described as ‘heartwarming’, which I usually interpret as a warning, a euphemism for cloying and sentimental. It’s a family Christmas film, yes, but so much more. It breaks my heart each time I watch it, and at the same time it heals me. It speaks to the disappointments, the failures, the wrong choices, that are part of everyone who’s been around for a while. It speaks to the idealism, the sense of values that aren’t monetary, that are part of everyone who gives a damn, whether it’s their turn or not.
It earns that ending, that wonderful, ridiculous ending. Because we feel George’s despair, and we feel his frustration and anger at the irreconcilable conflict between what he wants his life to be and what it has to be. He does the right thing, because he can’t not do the right thing, but we see what it costs him. On an individual human level, we identify with George because he really isn’t OK with the failure of his plans and dreams, he’s not at peace. And we admire him because nonetheless he will always do what is right. (Indeed, if it seems frivolous to link him to Mandela and Picquart, the heroes of my last two blogs, so be it.)
But the film is not just about an individual, it’s also about a community. George’s choices made Bedford Falls what it is. But this wasn’t because he did it all himself. He inspired other people, gave them the courage to do the right thing, to be as generous as he was. The direct impact – the lives he saved through direct intervention – are only part of it. People who in Pottersville were mean and fearful weren’t born that way, they learned to be mean and fearful because their lives had taught them that other people couldn’t be trusted, that everyone was out for themselves, that mistakes and misfortunes would be punished. In Bedford Falls, they saw generosity and kindness, and mistakes and misfortunes met with sympathy and support, and they learned to be generous and kind themselves.
It’s so easy to despair, when we see so many examples of meanness, prejudice, callousness to others’ misery. We’re encouraged to be xenophobic and suspicious. Watch out! In January we will literally be unable to move for Romanians and Bulgarians every single one of whom will be coming here to take our livelihoods. Watch out! That neighbour who you haven’t seen leaving for work recently is probably spending all day on the sofa in a onesie watching Jeremy Kyle and scrounging huge amounts in benefits.
We can choose instead to live in Bedford Falls. Why would we do otherwise? The Potters of our world will continue to spin their scurvy little webs, but we don’t have to acquiesce. So, for 2014, my mantra will be ‘You are now in Bedford Falls’, and whenever I encounter stories that show how communities can work together, support each other, reach out to those who need help, across the boundaries that might be expected to divide us, I’ll share them, with that hashtag. There are a couple below, for starters.
I don’t believe that humanity is a lost cause. I do believe that humanity is all there is, and that makes it so much more vital that we care for each other, because we’re all we’ve got, and these years we have on the planet is all we’ve got. Joss Whedon said it well, in Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
This year, in particular, these words from It’s a Wonderful Life have greater poignancy and resonance than ever:
Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
Because we got to find out what an awful hole was left when Tim Richardson died, in February. The memorial blog we set up for him tells so many stories of how his life touched those of others, and how much he is missed. And in his honour, we held the 24 Hour Inspire event, a community coming together to celebrate his life, his influence and his inspiration. It was a joyous occasion. And it was a glimpse of life in Bedford Falls.