It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic holiday film. Toward the end of the film, George Bailey is a desperate man standing on a bridge, guarding the life insurance policy in his pocket and staring down at what seems to be the only solution.
Earlier in the film, you see a boy with a spirit like Peter Pan’s who craves adventure and a young man on the threshold of pursuing his dreams of travel, college and architecture. Slowly, and sadly, George gives it all up for someone else’s life. Is there value and honor in sacrificing the desires of his own heart to stave off the evil Mr. Potter (thus allowing others in town to better enjoy their own lives)? Certainly. To an extent.
Because near the end of the film, in the midst of all the humor of a hapless angel earning his wings, is a man who’s going to kill himself. Don’t miss that. George Bailey has a house, a job, a beautiful wife and lovely children, and he’s standing on a bridge with a frozen river of pain beneath him: a man once so alive (and still by some measure so blessed), on the brink of ending it all.
How did he get here?
I believe that George Bailey had grown too far removed from the flame of his soul, from those dreams and desires unique to all of us that make us come alive. There’s an early scene in the movie Hook where a Lost Boy slowly begins to manipulate the worn, weathered face of Robin Williams. Finally, after removing the glasses, smoothing away the wrinkles and pushing back the corners of his mouth into a forced smile, the boy’s own expression erupts in wonderful excitement. “Oh there you are, Peter,” he says.
Robin Williams is Peter Pan, who has returned to Neverland as an adult, and a heavy-laden one at that. He’s so worn down with the trappings of adulthood in the real world that he’s lost any sense of the wonder and adventure that were so strongly manifested in his previous identity.
Similarly, by the time the hapless angel arrives on the bridge next to George Bailey, we’re looking at what happens to a person when they’re held captive living someone else’s life. Subsequently, it took an act of God to remind George that there was still a life worth living underneath the yoke of his burden.
So what can we learn from this?
Pay careful attention to the threshold of ought to and want to in life.
I’m 36, and I’ve come to believe that this calcification of the heart is what happens somewhere between the years of college graduation and the stage of life I’m currently navigating. Unlike my early 20s, I now have a wife, two kids, a mortgage and student loans. But like so many others in this particular decade, I’m in the throes of career transition.
In the midst of endless networking efforts, resume tweaks and job searches, I finally discovered that I’m approaching this task through the lens of ought to instead of want to. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Last week, I learned how to make a latte under the tutelage of a high school senior. I’m older than my barista trainer by nearly more years than she’s been alive. Did I mention I have a graduate degree? Talk about humbling.
Anyway, the thought of entertaining the question, “What do you really want to do?” felt so jarring at first that I immediately dismissed it. I’m an adult with responsibilities; no time for that nonsense.
Entertain the idea that maybe your desires are God’s way of speaking to you.
Anything worthwhile is uphill, and every hero’s journey goes through the trenches. I also believe that if you get lost in the trenches then an important part of you may very well die, and the rest of us will all be worse off for it. We need you alive. Not just living and breathing, but really living!
Saint Irenaeus, a second century priest, is credited with saying, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Of course he’s presuming “alive with God,” but I believe that oneness with God absolutely involves an element of walking fully in the gifts, desires and talents he entrusts to each of us. Furthermore, I believe that many of those are woven into the intrinsic desires of our hearts—the activities and roles and opportunities that ignite our souls.
Listen to the whispers of God before He needs to use the megaphone.
I mentioned that the ending of this iconic film is unsatisfying for me—scary, even. That’s because I find myself wondering what George Bailey is doing in late January that following year. Sure, he was able to thwart Potter once again, barely. But long after the glitter and tinsel are gone, after everyone’s left and Zuzu’s petals are lost, what is George Bailey waking up to? Because if it’s driving back to the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan for any reason other than to burn it down, I can’t help but feel afraid for him.
My wife and I are working hard to teach our 4-year old that Christmas is more about giving than getting. This Christmas, you’re probably long overdue on asking yourself what it is that you want, particularly out of work and life and play. I listen to a great podcast by that title: Work, Life, Play and I’ve been helped tremendously by it in the search for my own answers.
This coming year, be honest enough to reconnect with your inner Peter Pan. Remind yourself of who you are or were before the calcification of life made you forget. Most importantly, bring those desires of your heart to God before some low-ranking angel has to talk you off a cliff.