One of the most timeless Christmas stories of the past century is Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. Initially a box office disappointment in December 1946, it has become nearly as universally associated with the Christmas season as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and is watched by millions of people every December. The story centers around George Bailey, an everyman living in the small town of Bedford Falls, whose father owns the local Bailey Building and Loan. George has always dreamed of traveling the world, but upon his father’s death he finds himself faced with the decision to either take up his father’s position as head of the company or relinquish it to the miser, Henry Potter, who wants nothing less than ownership of the entire town. He becomes a local hero among many of the townsfolk, building homes and helping those in need. He soon marries his high school sweetheart and has three children, and they move into an old abandoned house in town, effectively rooting themselves – and George – in Bedford Falls for good.
But just when everything seems happy for George, disaster strikes. On Christmas Eve, his uncle and business partner, Billy, misplaces eight thousand dollars of the Bailey Building and Loan’s funds. This disaster puts the Building and Loan at Potter’s mercy, and George at risk for arrest and prosecution for a misuse of funds. As a last resort, George stops by Mr. Potter’s office to ask his archenemy for help – and mercy – where he reveals that the only money he has left that could possibly save the company is his ten thousand dollars of life insurance. Potter laughs, saying George is “worth more dead than alive.” He then calls up the police to tell the tale, and they immediately issue a warrant for George’s arrest on charges of misappropriation of funds, leaving George with two options: live, and face federal prison and bankruptcy, or die and save the company and his family, as he believes that his life insurance will cover the debt. Feeling no hope, he drives to a bridge and prepares to jump, only to be saved by his guardian angel, Clarence, who offers to show him what the world would look like if he had never been born.
It’s a Wonderful Life offered a life-affirming look at the issue of suicide at a time when it was still somewhat a taboo subject. But it is more relevant than ever with the rising rates of suicides among teenagers and young adults. When many of us first saw the film as children, we likely echoed Clarence’s initial commentary that money is a silly thing to kill yourself over. Upon reaching adulthood though, the realization hits us that the fear of debt is a real thing that affects many people, even young people with rising college tuition and a higher cost of living. But as Clarence shows George, each of us makes a greater impact on the world than we will ever know. In an alternate world where George was never born, his brother, Harry, a local WWII hero in the community, died at the age of nine because George didn’t rescue him from drowning after he fell through thin ice. Because Harry didn’t survive childhood to go to war, an entire transport of soldiers died. Many of the people George helped throughout his life were also in prison or struggling to survive in an alternate Bedford Falls, known as Pottersville, without George’s influence through the Building and Loan. In this alternate world, Potter took control of the entire town and converted it into a commercialistic wasteland.
None of us truly know how many lives we have impacted or how much we have changed the world for the better. We also can never be certain that our conditions will not improve, as the film shows, for as it turns out, ultimately, George’s friends and family raise enough money to save the business and keep him out of jail. The only thing his death would have achieved would have been to leave his wife a widow, and his children, fatherless – and it would have left Bedford Falls without a wonderful human being.
One final note must be made about Mr. Potter’s statement that George is “worth more dead than alive.” Potter almost seemed as if he was encouraging George to take his life. Just as Susan B. Anthony’s Revolution declared, “thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification…drove her to the desperation which impelled her to [abortion] (1)”, just so is he who drives one to suicide or actively encourages it. In many places in today’s culture, it seems popular to use “go kill yourself ” as a retort against someone’s unpopular opinion. This is an attitude that needs to end. Even in jest, this is a threat on par with any other threat of violence. No one is worth more dead than alive, because everyone’s life is wonderful and worth living. Let us appreciate the impact of each and every individual life in our world.
(1). The Revolution, July 8, 1869