I watch âIt’s a Wonderful Lifeâ every year. And every year it seems wiser, deeper, more prophetic.
Fans of the film will recognize the description of George Bailey, the character played by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s masterpiece:
A young man grows up in a small town. He dreams of traveling the world and accomplishing great things. But the dreams he had as a child are thwarted by circumstances he cannot control. As the oldest son, he feels obligated to provide for the family when his father can no longer. Eventually, he gets married and has children of his own. At every turn, he puts his responsibilities ahead of his dreams. When the business he has devoted his life to fails, he falls into despair.
When I saw the film again this week, I realized for the first time that it was also my father’s story. Except that my father never realized that life is really “wonderful”. He didn’t have an angel to show him how much worse things could have been without his sacrifices. There was no happy ending for him.
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There is a lot of talk these days about âtoxic masculinityâ and âmale privilegeâ. Yet one could argue that most men over the decades have not been guilty of too many bad behaviors but too many good ones. They quietly embrace long-held social expectations that place being a protector and provider above all else.
For some men, these expectations work well. Some, like Mr. Potter, are rising above their peers in the competitive world of business and finance to positions of considerable power and influence. Others, like Harry Bailey, thrive in a military career and return home as heroes. But for every Mr. Potter, for every Harry Bailey, there are dozens of men like George, men who are slowly crushed by the daily demands of relentless obligations, by the crushing of debts, by the emotional detachment that is the price to pay for denying his dreams.
When I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” today and see George Bailey standing on the bridge and gazing at the dark waters below, I think of the epidemic of male suicides in the United States, nearly 30 per cent. 100,000 for men aged 45 to 64.
In our contemporary discourse on social issues, there are too many blatant statements about which groups are oppressed and which are oppressors. There is too little reflection on how difficult life can be for everyone and the deep extent of our mutual dependence.
My father’s death remains a mystery. He became more and more isolated in his later years. He stopped wearing his hearing aids and often refused to answer the phone. If he answered, he complained that he couldn’t hear anything and hung up after a frustrating few minutes of yelling into the receiver. As he did not collect his newspapers for several days, a neighbor stopped and found him lying on the kitchen floor.
It was a brutal, lonely death, made worse by the knowledge that he believed himself to be a failure.
I asked him once, in a rare moment of intimate conversation, if he realized how much the people in the family respected him. He shook his head, stood up and left the room.
How hard it is for some to hear of their own goodness. Their inner voice is a constant refrain of self-criticism. Words of encouragement don’t go through the chorus.
When the philosopher Henry David Thoreau observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet despair” he was thinking of men like my father whose emotional detachment is so deep that they isolate themselves in their silence. âWhat we call resignation is confirmed despair. From the Desperate City you enter the Desperate Country. â¦ A stereotypical but unconscious despair lurks even under what are called the games and amusements of humanity.
There is someone in your circle of influence today who is standing on a bridge and looking at the dark waters. They speak to you with a smile, but at the same time they listen to an inner voice telling them that their life has been a mess.
The sparkle in Capra’s movie comes from the scene where George’s suicidal thoughts are interrupted upon hearing calls for help from another man. Without hesitating for a moment, he jumps into the river to save a drowning man. And that’s what saves George. Even in the lowest moments of desperation, his sense of responsibility runs even deeper. He doesn’t value his own life, but he won’t sit idly by while another needs help.
Even when words fail, there is always practical encouragement. If loneliness is the feeling that you have nothing to offer, the way out of loneliness does not come from being helped but from helping, from being genuinely needed.
I thought I could help my dad by talking to him, by doing things for him. This is not what he needed. He needed to be useful again. He needed to be needed.
It is by giving that we receive, and it is by receiving that we give.