George Bailey has become as much a part of Christmas as carols, cocoa and mistletoe.
He’s the focus of Frank Capra’s 1947 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a sometimes-dark movie that nevertheless resonates with hope and inspiration. In it, George is considering suicide—the world “would be better off if I’d never been born,” he laments—when an angel shows him how Bedford Falls would have been different without him.
Here are five lessons we can learn from the holiday classic:
1. Sometimes you just gotta dance. George’s brother, Harry, invites his older brother to his high school dance but initially George pooh-poohs the idea. He is, after all, all grown up and these are just kids. But after George changes his mind, the decision changes his life. Why? Because he meets Mary, the woman he marries. The woman whose idea it is to use their honeymoon cash to save the Building & Loan. Who rallies the community after his Christmas Eve meltdown. And the woman who loves him unconditionally. So, given the chance, take a risk. Go to the dance.
2. Perspective changes everything. What is different about George Bailey’s life after he’s shown by Clarence what life would have been like without him? In terms of his circumstances, absolutely nothing. The Building & Loan still is out $8,000 and on the brink of going under. George is still about to be arrested. And a reporter is poised to slap all the Bailey bad news on the front page. So, why after his angel-accompanied journey, is George a changed man? A joyful man? Because the angel has taught him that what’s important is the people around us. As the saying goes: “We can’t control the wind, but we can adjust our sails.”
3. Look for the best in people. Violet Bick is Bedford Fall’s hussy. But George sees her for more than that. He treats her with respect. He looks beyond her sexuality. He gives her money when she says she’s moving to New York City. In the end, she decides not to leave Bedford Falls, and you wonder if one of the reasons is that George’s willingness to see her as a valuable human being– instead of a sex object– infuses her with confidence. Look for the good in others and you might change their lives.
4. Desperation can be a catalyst for great things. George faces two desperate situations and learns and grows from both. In the run-on-the-bank scene, he doesn’t run away from the situation. Instead, he finds a solution, thanks to Mary’s offer of their honeymoon money. In so doing, he wins the respect of the community. And in the Christmas Eve scene, his desperation leads to a prayer at Martini’s Bar that changes his life. Don’t despair when times get tough. Desperate times often lead to amazing solutions.
5. The richest people in town might be poor in their bank account. George Bailey being heralded as “the richest man in town” by his younger brother Harry at the end of “Wonderful Life” is a reminder. The point is that richness and having lots of money are not one and the same.
The best lesson George learns on his stroll though “life-without-me” with the angel is that he was rich all along. He just needed an angel to remind him of it.
Bob Welch is the author of more than 20 books, including “52 Little Lessons From ‘A Christmas Carol”’ and “52 Little Lessons From ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.”’ Follow him on Twitter @bob_welch. For more information on Welch and his books visit bobwelch.net.