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“It’s A Wonderful Life” … But It Will Cost You

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With the Advent of Christmas, many of us are succumbing to that seasonal tearjerker and Frank Capra classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), starring the legendary Jimmy Stewart.  You may love it as heartwarming or hate it as corny.  Either way, the film explores something very real: the miraculous power of friendship over isolation.

Trust is another of its themes. We can easily forget how much our freedom to pursue happiness depends upon our freedom to develop connections of trust with others in our personal lives. Trust is the bond that allows any real friendship to take root and thrive.

But trust in our fellow humans has plummeted, according to the General Social Survey. Today a full two thirds of Americans say they agree with the statement “you can’t be too careful when dealing with others.” When the question was first put in 1972, the results showed that half agreed. A sense of alienation and isolation from others seems to be growing steeply.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” presents us with this choice: you can be alive to others who cross your path, or you can be dead to them.  Whatever you sow for them, both you and they will reap. It’s also about our inner battles – greed vs. generosity, humility vs. arrogance, sacrifice vs. fulfillment – but the central message is friendship. In fact, that message is literally put into writing in a note at the end of the film: “Remember, George, ‘No man is a failure who has friends.’”

A great safeguard against misery and a sense of failure in life is having good and dependable human companionship. We forge these bonds through various associations and institutions in civil society. In fact, it seems the excessive accumulation of wealth and status is partly a way for individuals to compensate for social isolation, or try to build a hedge against it.

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives”

In the beginning of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” our hero George Bailey has come to believe that $8,000 is the dividing line between his death and a life worth living. In the end, he discovers the huge treasure that lay in the relationships he nurtured and cultivated throughout his life.

George lives in Bedford Falls, a town controlled mostly by Mr. Potter who is as mean as he is wealthy. Potter is a self-isolated and joyless power monger, frustrated by his inability to take over the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. So when the opportunity presents itself, Potter sets George up to fail.

Unaware of Potter’s role in the misplaced $8,000 bank deposit, George appeals to Potter for a loan, and even offers $500 equity in his life insurance policy as collateral. He throws himself at Potter’s mercy.

Mercy?  Hell, no. Potter savors this powerful moment. He tells George he’s on his own, and he shouldn’t expect goodwill from the “rabble” he’s helped either, because “they’ll run you out of town on a rail” when they find out. Potter piles on: “You’re worth more dead than alive.” Then he calls the police to have him arrested.

It’s Christmas Eve. And all George can see is a future of jail time, shame, and poverty for his young family. He makes his way to a bridge, and prepares to commit suicide. But he’s compelled instead to save someone down there shouting for help. That would be Clarence, the bumbling and hardworking angel, assigned to guard and guide George back to hope. And just to add some extra schmaltz to the whole affair, we learn that Clarence is trying “to earn his wings.”

Still, George sets Clarence straight:  “There’s only one way you can help me. You don’t happen to have eight thousand bucks on you?”

“Oh, no, no. We don’t use money in heaven,” Clarence answers.

“Well, comes in pretty handy down here, Bub!”

Yes, money seems to come in especially handy when you don’t have anything else to fall back on. Things like faith, strong family bonds, self-ruling communities, virtue, true friends, wisdom of the ages. These are the basic elements that allow for the real spread of all aid and wealth, whether material or intangible.

George always nurtured these things for their own sake, not for any expectation or reward. So he didn’t realize what he had.

Real wealth inequality

As corny as it may seem to moderns, the movie’s message is laden with more truth than can be handled by those who obsess over “income inequality.” To say “the rich get richer” or “the poor get poorer” is perhaps as true as saying “the smart get smarter” or “the happy get happier.” There are plenty of variations on this, such as “the healthy get healthier,” “the sick get sicker,” “the fit get fitter,” “the lazy get lazier.”  There’s something analogous to a law of physics here. Practices and habits tend to build on themselves, and good ones pay dividends, especially if you live in a free society that doesn’t get in the way of you cultivating good habits. Or of cultivating voluntary associations and friendships through trust.

The term “inequality” requires we label all people based on what they have. It gets in the way of seeing people as they are. George always strived to see the whole person. Yet he didn’t recognize the positive impact this had on the lives of others. George had even succumbed to the false idea that his life was a “failure” because he hadn’t achieved success as superficially assured by some in society – wealth and adventure.

So Clarence takes George on a little tour of a different Bedford Falls – one in which George Bailey had never existed. In it George sees friends and acquaintances devoid of the warmth he brought to their lives or without the advantage of his counsel, aid, and presence. He saw spite and nastiness coming from his old pal Nick. He saw the townspeople reject and degrade his old boss, the druggist Mr. Gower, whom George had saved from ruin. He saw great sorrow, confusion, corruption, loneliness.

When George could stand it no more, he prayed to live again. And he did.

Then, George is not only thrilled to be going home, but he’s just fine with the idea of going to jail too. Jail seemed such a miniscule price to pay for all of the joys and love in the grand scheme of things.

But George won’t be going to jail. That’s because everyone in town turns out to pay in cash what amounts to Potter’s ransom.

Though the Great Depression lives in recent memory, townsfolk start bursting in from the snow to the Bailey’s living room, joyfully tossing cash into a basket and singing Christmas carols. We see how George’s relationships created unexpected windfalls in every way.

The money is not the central piece here. It’s the filling of the need and the cheerfulness of the giving. We might even get Capra-esque here and say the pile cash also serves symbolically as just tinsel on the tree of that wonderful life, not the tree of that life itself.

For many of us the whole mushy scene is more we can handle emotionally, as everyone spontaneously comes together to rescue and celebrate George, the individual – kind, selfless, flawed, irreplaceable – whom they just couldn’t help but love. Uncle Billy – returning from the collection rounds he made in town — explained it best: “They didn’t ask any questions. Just said ‘If George is in trouble, count me in!’”

All seems as it should be, so it scarcely occurs to us that there could have been other endings, other ways the community may have responded. Perhaps they could have protested the bankruptcy, demanding a bailout, and holding a rally in front of Potter’s office. Or they could have expressed their anger and frustration with George’s Building and Loan, as Potter predicted they would. They could have rallied against social and economic injustice.  They could have burned Potter in effigy and turned against George, too. And they could have shouted slogans and demanded higher taxes on the “one percenters” like Potter, believing it would pay for bureaucracy to feed, clothe, and house them.

Instead, we see a beehive of common humanity and good cheer in the Bailey’s living room, all in thanksgiving for the good guy. And we don’t even notice that just about every politically “unequal” category of people is represented there: the super rich, the middle class, the working class, the unemployed, African Americans, immigrants with heavy accents, the sexually expressive, the elderly, children, the military, and, yes, even government bureaucrats. (The bureaucrat is the last to come around, but in the end, he can’t resist being a part of it too.)

Finally, George’s brother Harry, young and decorated WWII hero, suddenly bursts in. And it’s time to pull another Kleenex out of the box as he raises a glass: “to my big brother George, the richest man in town!”

The decline of trust

“It’s a Wonderful Life” showcases the triumph of goodwill and trust when it’s cultivated spontaneously among friends and associates. Human beings will always yearn for the faith in others that builds healthy social bonds. We must reject any notion that this yearning is merely a sentimental nostalgia for a bygone era. It’s deep in our nature to pine for it and respond to it.

The decline of trust has been linked by many social observers to a decline in community ties. In the book “Bowling Alone” (2000), Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam explored and theorized that we’re experiencing a growing deficit of “social capital” as a result of the loosening of community bonds in America.

“Social capital” is a term roughly equivalent to “civic engagement.” But it cannot really account for the real meaning of bonds of affection that bind people together, which is the root of what we call “social capital.” As long as we understand this, then social capital can operate as an engine that breeds wealth and health in individuals and throughout society. But social capital loses that effect if it’s sought for that end.

Having friends – whether or not they are well connected – gives people emotional and spiritual advantages which lay the groundwork for any material advantages. Intimate friendships infuse people with a sense of connection, purpose, encouragement, and drive. But it is the widespread and spontaneous happiness that’s derived from these bonds that allows a society to build institutions that function smoothly, freely, and prosperously. C.S. Lewis wrote (in “The Four Loves“)  “affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.” Affection is what breeds bonds that are independent and strong.

Political observers will have varying explanations for declining trust or “deficits in social capital.” “Bowling Alone” attributes much of the decrease to “generational change” and it dismisses the role of “big government.” Both of these conclusions seem to beg more questions than they answer and are steeped in statistics (e.g., that government as a percentage of GDP hadn’t changed much over the past 50 years) in a quest to quantify what’s ultimately unquantifiable.

We also might note that it’s always been in the interest of centralizing forces and power elites to prevent and break voluntary social bonding among people. As the State grows, it takes over the functions of institutions in which people traditionally bond, especially family. We know for a fact that totalitarian governments are invested in the destruction of trust among individuals because it’s far more difficult to control people when they have independent connections to other associations.

Examples abound. Just watch the 2006 film “The Lives of Others” to get a true-to-life picture of how the East German secret police monitored the private lives of its citizens, turning them against one another. Orlando Figes describes this sort of thing in his book “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia.”  In “The Black Book of Communism,” Pascal Fontaine remarks on Cuba: “The surveillance and denunciation system is so rigorous that family intimacy is almost nonexistent.”

None of this should surprise us if we’re paying attention. Sixty years ago the eminent sociologist Robert Nisbet published an eye-opening book “The Quest for Community” in which he wrote extensively about the centralized state’s encroachment upon all of the mediating institutions – family, church, private associations — that protect individuals from being separated, atomized, and then controlled by the state when there is no other place to go.

Echoing and expanding upon Tocqueville, Nisbet warned that the West was now deep in the process of succumbing to the forces of an ever-expanding state that would ultimately claim “absolute authority as against all churches, associations, and persons within their jurisdiction.” Centralizing forces take advantage of our personal quest for social bonding, replacing true bonds of affection with sterilized forms of “community” that serve a centralized power structure, not individual happiness.

So what exactly is friendship?

How might we define this social intimacy that humans yearn for and that the control freaks of the world like Mr. Potter are always so intent on destroying? The study of interpersonal relations and social psychology began booming just a couple of decades ago. Some scholars have zeroed in on the idea that the bonds of friendship are connections in which we entrust others with our “secret knowledge.” It is the voluntary decisions to share and respect and keep this private knowledge that cultivates human bonds of trust and security.

And indeed we observe it in the scene when the young George Bailey tells the druggist Mr. Gower that he saw him accidentally put poison in a prescription that Mr. Gower was sending out. George intercepted the package, saving Gower from ruin, but “never told a soul” about Mr. Gower’s mistake. We also see George privately and respectfully provide papers and financial assistance to the sultry Violet, who had to leave town for undisclosed reasons.

Such bonds – when they aren’t impaired by outside controlling influences – has a very healthy ripple effect throughout society, spreading a deep level of comfort, trust, and goodwill in others. Without a friend to turn to, with no one to confide in, people easily become alienated, isolated, and more susceptible to compensate through destructive behaviors. Suicide rates and drug abuse rise. Then, naturally, more folks are fine when the State steps in.

Two meanings of “community”: autonomous vs. state run

We ought to be wary when the idea of “community” is peddled by apologists for big government who promote policies that are hostile to the autonomy of institutions that build real communities – family, church, and private associations. For example, MSNBC anchor Melissa-Harris Perry announced that we need to “break away from our private idea that kids belong to their parents or their families” and instead have a more “collective” idea that “kids belong to whole communities.” Of course she’s not talking about communities built by people working together freely and with a common purpose.  She can only mean community in the sense of an authority that imposes its purpose and definition of community upon the people so that they are no longer masters of their own destiny or able to build together in a spirit of freedom.

These notions of government-controlled community are false, and end up starving us of social connections because they erode institutions of family, church, and private association that serve as buffer zones between individual and a centralized state. George Bailey argued that Bedford Falls needed the institution of the Building and Loan “if for no other reason than to have a place people can come without having to crawl to Potter!” And Potter indeed serves as a symbol of totalitarian creep. Without George Bailey holding him at bay, distrust amongst townsfolk grew, and people became more isolated and separated from one another emotionally and in spirit.

Distrust among people is a starvation that begins with the silencing of our innermost thoughts and beliefs. That’s exactly what “political correctness” aims to do. When a person fears their opinions will make them a pariah, they find it more and more difficult to strike up heart to heart talks with anyone new. Hence there is less exchange of ideas, and a dwindling of folks with whom people can entrust their private concerns. Political correctness serves to disintegrate social bonds – always, of course, in the name of promoting them. Once people are starved of social bonds, the state steps in to feed on the people’s yearning for community. As Nisbet wrote, “expansion of power feeds on the quest for community.”

Individuals in isolation cannot withstand centralized power. Ultimately, only voluntary bonds of faith, family, friendship, and associations based on goodwill can prevail. They’re stronger than Potter’s urge for power, and far stronger than an isolated George Bailey, separated from others. As in the happy Bedford Falls of George Bailey, these bonds have their roots in the meaning of Christmas, the mystery of love.

Stella Morabito writes on society, culture and education.