Sunday, December 21, 2008

ZuZu's Petals

It's easy to become cynical about life in the new millennium. The world is filled with too much greed, selfishness, rudeness, and thoughtlessness. Sure, there are exceptions, and thank God for them, but the mantra of "generation me" seems to be a sad parody of the Golden Rule: Love Thy Self. When I get to wondering whether higher qualities can still be found in people, I sit down with my box of Kleenex and watch Frank Capra's little jewel of a movie: "It's a Wonderful Life". The film was made in 1946 based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" written by Philip Van Doren Stern.

The story takes place in the fictional town of Bedford Falls shortly after World War II and stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve gains the attention of his guardian angel, Clarence, who is sent to help him in his hour of need. Through flashbacks spanning George's entire life, we see all the people whose lives have been touched by his, and the difference he has made to the community in which he lives. The film is regarded as a classic, and is a staple of Christmas television viewing around the world. Due however to its high production costs and stiff competition at the box office, financially, it was considered a "flop" in its time.

For me, the thing that makes this movie worth watching year in and year out is the inherent "goodness" of its main character, George Bailey. I believe we are all looking for reaffirmation of the notion that people are good. That belief is shaken daily by the shocking headlines in our newspapers, and we need to have our "faith batteries" recharged to sustain our high opinion of man as essentially good. George's life is about sacrifice for those he loves and for the things in which he believes.

Capra really yanks our chain in this movie. Every time it looks like George is finally going to get a much-deserved break in life, the rug gets pulled out from under him (and us) by another cruel twist of fate. One-by-one his dreams are trampled: He lets brother Harry go to college in his place while he stays home to run the family business; Harry gets an out-of-town job with his new father-in-law and again, George is left behind; his honeymoon with new wife Mary (Donna Reed) is cancelled when they have to use the money to prevent a panic "run" on the Savings and Loan; Bailey Park, his community of affordable homes causes resentment by Mr. Potter, the town's mean tycoon banker, who tries unsuccessfully to bribe George to come to work for him; and the final straw, on Christmas Eve, while on his way to deposit $8,000 for the Building & Loan, George's Uncle Billy absentmindedly leaves the deposit envelope with the $8000 in Potter's office on the day the bank examiner is to inspect the Building & Loan's records.

A despondent George, considering his life to be a total failure, desperately appeals to Mr. Potter for a loan to rescue the company; Potter turns him down when all the collateral George can offer is $500 equity in a $15,000 life insurance policy. Potter cruelly remarks that George is "worth more dead than alive." Later, George crashes his car into a tree during a snowstorm, and runs to a nearby bridge, intending to commit suicide. (Who can blame him.) This is where Capra rewards us for suffering through the ups and downs (mostly downs) in poor George's life.

Clarence, his guardian angel, stops George before he can jump off the bridge. George bitterly wishes he had never been born. Clarence then shows him what the town and its people would have been like if George had never existed. Seeing his life in its true light, George realizes he has not been a failure, and calls on God to let him live again. His prayer is answered and George runs home, filled with a new appreciation of what he has accomplished. There, he finds that his friends and family have collected a huge amount of money to save George and the Building & Loan from scandal and ruin. (Tissue please.) Seeing how many lives he has touched, and the difference he has made to the town, George Bailey realizes that despite his problems, he really has led a wonderful life.

I guess I told more about the movie than I intended, but in order to understand just what it is in George Bailey that we find so endearing, we need to understand how he lived life. Without realizing it, his selfless nature improved the lives of so many people around him; I guess if we had to describe him in today's language, he would be called an "enabler" in the best sense of that word. Always putting the needs of others before his own, George delayed living his dreams so that others could live theirs.

When we look back on our lives, our disappointments and unrealized dreams can sometimes make us feel like George did. What if we had made different choices about our careers or taken more risks to get ahead...would our lives have been more meaningful? We don't have a guardian angel to remind us what a difference we've made in the lives of others, so we have to remind ourselves. The moral example you set for your family, the summer home or luxury car you passed up so the kids could go to school, the child you taught how to read, or the Cub Scout you helped to earn his merit badges...all of them are better off because of you. So don't sell yourself short my friend. Check your pocket and I'm sure down at the bottom, you'll find ZuZu's petals. (Watch the movie if you don't understand that reference.)

Merry Christmas to all.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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