If you, like me, find yourself watching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life this time of year, you are not alone by a long shot. The 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is a movie classic, a study in the choices we face in life, whether to follow dreams, to do as we want, when confronted by responsibility and duty. More than that, it’s a movie that reveals the mystery of God’s providence (without saying so) for, in the case of George Bailey, the veil is pulled back for a time to show him what life would have been like had he not been born and, conversely, the great good that occurred, largely unbeknownst to him, because of his life of virtuous choices.
In an essay in Touchstone, entitled “Potterville Nation,” Anthony Esolen takes a decidedly bleak look at the world and decides it is just that --- a place, like Potterville, not Bedford Falls, full of greed and avarice, of people chasing the vain imaginations of their hearts, of churches that encourage rather than stand in judgment over such vanities. According to Esolen, the message of It’s a Wonderful Life “ is not simply that every life is important, but that what makes my life important, in the long view, in the providential view, is almost always what the world considers silly, small-town, no-account, trivial --- a waste.” And for Christians, those similarly trivial, daily, choices are the stuff of true spiritual pilgrimage, of a life where even our poor choices are redeemed by a God who “works all things together for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).
We may live in a place, in a world full of greed, avarice, and evil, yet if we look for them we will find plenty of George Baileys who are faithfully doing what is necessary --- going to work, spending time with children, teaching school, cleaning houses and offices, fixing streets, and so on --- and not leaving to chase vain imaginings. When I visit New York City or Los Angeles, for example, I’m keenly aware of the vanities of life, of crime, of urban blight, and yet at the same time I’m amazed that things work reasonably well most of the time. People get up and go to work. Teachers teach. The garbage is picked up. Water flows 35 stories up to my hotel room. Streets are passable. People often do what is required --- never, perhaps, from entirely pure motives, but still they do it. By God’s grace, there is civilization, not anarchy. Look for good and you will find it. It’s not all Potterville but if you look again it’s Bedford Falls. Look at what sin has twisted and see the potentiality of good or, at least, believe in God’s providential reordering of evil to good, of His undoing of the curse.
At the end of my our Christmas Eve viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, it occurred to me that it was unlikely that anyone who acted in the film was still living. One is. Karolyn Grimes, who played young Zuzu, George Baily’s daughter, six at the time and now 68, has had a life filled with tragedy --- her mother died when she was 14, she lost her father in a car crash a year later, was sent to live with an aunt in what she referred to as a “bad home,” never made it in acting, lost her first husband in a hunting accident, lost her second husband to cancer, lost her 18-year old son to suicide, and lost all the money she had in the recession of the early 2000s. Can you imagine? And yet she can still say this: "There have been adverse things happen in my own life, but there are balances out there. And the movie itself has affected my life so much because I have George Bailey's philosophy … that friendships and caring and loving will carry you through anything. I really feel like Zuzu is kind of a mission maybe, I don't know. I think that there is a higher power at work and that I had to go through a lot of adverse situations in my life to understand other people's pain.”
Thank God there is a “higher power” at work, a hand of providence. Thank God we don’t have our way all the time. Thank God for the trivial, small-town, and seemingly insignificant lives we live. We may never know all the good that’s come of it, and all the evil left undone. If you believe God is on the move, it’s a wonderful life after all.