It really is a wonderful life

The Atlantic magazine just ran an article examining my favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” from the specific angle of banking. It seems the classic 1946 film, which I watch every holiday season, still has a lot to tell us about predatory lenders, foreclosures and payday loans. There are more Mr. Potters, the greedy developer, out there 70 years later than there are George Baileys.

George, the Jimmy Stewart character, is the hero of the movie. He runs a small, family-owned savings-and-loan business serving his neighbors in the town of Bedford Falls.

George is unusually generous in his credit decisions, making loans based in part on his personal knowledge of the character of the applicant. Nowadays, with banks continuing to consolidate, it’s rare to find an institution that will take a chance on someone the way George Bailey does.

I found the article fascinating, and it’s certainly true that money questions loom large in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Indeed, the plot turns on George’s uncle’s careless loss of $8,000 in savings-and-loan money and the potentially catastrophic repercussions of that loss.

But beyond the financial issues, it’s George’s mental state that always gets me. In a movie known for sweetness and light—a beloved seasonal classic—here is our hero, seriously depressed.

He’s not the only one. Christmas is supposed to be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, or so every TV commercial tells us. But for many of us, it’s not. “One North American survey reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season,” said an article in Psychology Today.

The holidays are the most difficult time of the year for anyone who is separated or estranged from their family—or for those without a family—or for anyone who has suffered a loss. The older you get, that’s pretty much everybody.

Others get depressed due to “excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life … in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more,” Psychology Today reported.

Indeed, that’s just what happens to George Bailey.

George feels like a failure. He second-guesses his life choices and torments himself with thoughts of all he’s missed. He’s always wanted to travel, for example, but every potential excursion was aborted before it started as George sacrificed his own dreams for the good of others.

Uncle Billy’s loss of the money is the last straw. George becomes suicidal, stepping back from the brink only when his guardian angel, Clarence, appears to show him how the world—and Bedford Falls—would look if he had never lived.

George sees how our every deed causes ripples, like the proverbial stone thrown into the pond. Everything we do affects others in unknowable or unexpected ways.

George comes to realize that you don’t have to be a big shot, like his flamboyant and successful younger brother Harry, whom he has always envied, to have a Wonderful Life. Being who you are is enough.

As my friend Cliff always used to tell me: “You can’t compare!”

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  • Blog Author

    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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