Monday, December 26, 2016

It's a wonderful life...or is it?

This Christmas Eve I got the impression that it might be nice to watch It's a Wonderful Life. I am a huge fan of Jimmy Stewart movies, and that one used to be one of my favorite flicks. I hadn't watched it in a few years. My kids are old enough to sit through it, so we decided to watch it.

The movie stopped being on my short list when I learned enough about economics to resent the anti-capitalist tone of the movie. My recollection of the movie was that Jimmy Stewart's character made repeated poor economic decisions, and in the end his free loading friends give back a small fraction of the savings he passed on to them to save his rear end. That is not a true recollection.

Watching the movie deeply affected me. Here is a more accurate summary of what the character does in his life:

  1. He jumps into freezing water to save his brother, causing partial deafness for the duration of his life.
  2. He endures a beating by his childhood pharmacist boss to save him from mistakenly issuing poison to a client while drunk.
  3. He forgoes travel and college (for which he had save his whole life and put off 4 years to help his father's business) in order to keep the company alive after his father's untimely passing.
  4. He uses his savings to instead send his brother to college, with the understanding that they will switch out after he graduates. His brother instead gets married and takes another job.
  5. He takes care of his mother after his father dies.
  6. He builds a huge housing development, selling the houses at 1/4 of their market price in order to get poor people out of rental slums.
  7. He gives away his marriage/honeymoon savings to the townspeople when there is a run on the bank.
  8. He surrenders his ideas of travel and business success to his wife, who wants to live in their hometown and live in an old broken down mansion.
  9. ...The list goes on!
In the end, his nitwit uncle misplaces a huge deposit that would have resulted not only in the loss of the business for which he had sacrificed so much, but also jail time. Realizing that his life insurance policy would pay out enough to cover the shortage, he resolves to commit suicide.

Interestingly, even when faced with the possibility that his repeated sacrificial decisions would be robbed of meaning, he resolves to give the final sacrifice--his own life--to preserve the wellbeing of those around him, including his uncle, who would benefit the most from the deal despite having been the cause of the problem.

This movie wreaks of gospel truth! But before we get to that, if you haven't seen the movie and can continue to live with yourself despite this glaring omission, here's how it ends: An angel visits him and shows him what life would be like for those he knows had he never been born. In the end, he decides that he does more good by being alive than being dead, and the townspeople come through and donate enough money to make up for his uncle's mistake.

Life as a disciple of Jesus Christ means that you are going to consistently make sacrifices for those who will receive far less benefit than your cost. Like Jimmy Stewart's little brother, they will take your sacrifice, but will squander it. Like Jimmy Stewart's father, they will give you opportunities to step up and pay the price of their mistakes. Like the housing development, there will be plenty of times where you are given the chance to cash out on a lifetime of your hard work in order to fundamentally improve the lives of many people who have not made that sacrifice, and in the end, as the bad-guy Potter correctly says, they will be the first ones to string you up when you face your own challenge in life. The point of the gospel is not that some day all the people who you sacrificed for will come and dump out a payment for your good deeds on your dining room table while singing. Unlike in the movie, that is never going to happen. The point is that, in this life, we each have not only one but many "Clarence moments" where we decide that the sacrifice is worth it--not in absolute terms, as we will all come away with a loss in this life, maybe a huge loss--but that the outcome in us is what we seek. As the placard hanging below Stewart's father's portrait said (paraphrasing), our riches in this life consist in what we do for others. We derive our satisfaction not in the result of our toil for others, but in the toil itself.

What a sobering but powerful movie.