Call me overly sentimental, but I have always been a fan of the film It’s a Wonderful Life. A few years back, it seemed you could find it playing at just about any hour of the day throughout the month of December. It’s in lower rotation these days, so when it came on the other night, I made sure to record it. Tonight, I sat down to watch it for the nth time.
It’s not just the resounding optimism of the end of the movie that gets me–it’s the entire arc. George Bailey sets aside one ambition after another and finds himself in a life not at all what he expected. Sure, he does all the right things for all the right reasons, but at each juncture, you can see the disappointment on his face as one opportunity after another escapes his grasp.
Then there’s that moment in his house when he just loses it. He’s shouting, he’s irritable, he’s lost all hope. He’s in the worst kind of trouble, the heavenly voice-over tells us:
Then, of course, along comes Clarence the guardian angel, and George Bailey wishes that he had never been born. And we know how the movie goes from there, and the lesson that he learns–how one life touches many.
But tonight, here’s what I really noticed.
After George returns to the bridge and prays “I want to live again,” Bert the Cop is the first person to catch up with him. Bert recognizes George–George asks “Do you know me?” Bert says of course, and then asks George if he is ok, pointing out that his lip is bleeding. When George realizes that his lip is indeed bleeding, he lets out the most joyful cheer in the movie. In fact, the script reads: “his rapture knows no bounds.”
George cheers three times, actually. The first when he finds that his lip is bleeding. The second when he discovers Zuzu’s petals. And the third when he finds his car smashed into the tree.
Now who wouldn’t cheer for Zuzu’s petals, right? But it’s that first cheer (and the third too, to a lesser degree) that really caught me tonight.
There is indeed a wonder and a rapture in that moment of realizing I really am alive, even amidst the pain, the suffering, the damage and the uncertainty. George literally tastes the blood in his mouth–and is thrilled to be alive.
That, for me, is really the gift of this movie. Not that somehow all of George’s good deeds are rewarded in the end, or that he discovers “no man is a failure who has friends;” no, I think what always touched me is George’s willingness to embrace, joyfully, the wonder of his life without knowing how his hardship would end.
So three cheers for George Bailey. And may we all take heart in the wonder of being alive.