As we are upon the Christmas season, I took some time this week to re-watch a holiday classic: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The central theme of this film — “no man is a failure who has friends” — has deeply touched generations of viewers for over 70 years. For me, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has a special nostalgic feel of the era it represents. Released in 1947, it beautifully shows the strong bond of the loving, fictional town of Bedford Falls where people genuinely cared for one another.
Although the economic hardships of the Great Depression were depicted, this was a simpler time. News traveled through telegrams and newspapers, which would presently be considered a snail’s pace when compared with the constant updates we receive through our smartphones. Telephone conversations and in-person interactions were jovial, comforting and fulfilling.
One of my fashionable favorites of this period was that folks always seemed to be dressed in their Sunday best. Fedoras complemented men’s woolen, double-breasted suits, and women were stylishly modest with brightly colored hats and A-line skirts. Yet, even during the simplicity of this time when people seemed happier and more connected community-wise, discouragement and suicide — two tormenting social ills in our present culture — were constantly lurking. This depressive, emotional tag team antagonized one of Bedford Falls’ most respected residents, George Bailey.
I began seriously thinking about today’s George Baileys while reviewing “It’s a Wonderful Life” and reading about the drug overdoses, alcohol-related deaths and suicides that have caused life expectancy in the U.S. to decline. A November study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that between 1959 and 2016, life expectancy “increased from 69.9 years to 78.9 years but declined for 3 consecutive years after 2014.” The data show that adults who are middle-aged comprise a significant number of fatal drug overdoses, which has increased a whopping 386.5% between 1999 and 2017.
The statistics are equally disturbing regarding suicide rates, with a 55.9% increase for people between the ages of 55 and 64. Young adults are also succumbing to grave life crises, according to the JAMA results. Alcohol-related deaths have increased by 157.6% from 1999 to 2017 for people ages 25 to 34. CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta concluded that the JAMA report reflects “existential stress” and “deaths of despair.”
The personal difficulties of many represented in the JAMA study were probably similar to George Bailey’s struggles. Those of you who have seen the film remember that George became despondent when the dreams he had for his future began slipping away due to great sacrifices he made for his family. He put off college to send his younger brother to school, and his father’s death forced him to take over the family’s loan business and delay traveling abroad. Although George marries the woman he loves, he feels empty because he sees his friends becoming successful and wealthy. He almost ends his life when a costly mistake by his uncle nearly brings him to financial ruin. It takes the wisdom and wit of his guardian angel, Clarence, to show George that his life is meaningful.
One of the opening lines of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is extremely relevant regarding the “existential stress” of our times that Gupta mentioned. I’m going to paraphrase it: Don’t throw away God’s greatest gift, your life.
One scripture that comes to mind, though not referenced in the film, is Luke 12:15, where Jesus says, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Like many people today, George was evaluating himself on what others had and his lack of accomplishments compared to them. What George failed to realize was that he was rich in the things that have greater substance than money. He was rich in family relationships and an overflow of friends, and these people came to his rescue when he desperately needed them.
If you’re feeling downhearted as George was while Christmas celebrations are beginning, I want to assure you that your life is valuable to God. Like George, we all have had setbacks and disappointments, but God is not assessing us by the world’s standards of success, which lead to dejection. God wants us to entrust our lives to Him so that we can enjoy the abundant life, which is also quite wonderful, that Christ came to give us.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.