The Beauty of Being the Shepherd in the Play of Life

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | December 23, 2010 | Comments ()

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | December 23, 2010 |

However, my favorite Christmas show will always be the old 1946 Capra chestnut, It's A Wonderful Life.

I'm powerless in the face of this movie.

I weep like a baby, every time.

Starring Jimmy Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of stand-up family man George Bailey, who falls on hard times and decides to jump off a bridge. Clarence, an angel-in-training, intercedes and shows George the world that would have existed had he never been born.

In the never-been-born scenario, George sees that the town he grew up in, where he was a stabilizing force, is radically different. This incarnation of Bedford Falls is a blunt and loveless place that gives no quarter and expects none in return. Freaked-out and desperate, he careens through the streets of town, happening upon all the people that he had known and loved, now corrupted and hardened by the circumstances of their lives.

Seeing this, George begs Clarence to return him to his previous life, not so much for his sake--the immobilizing disappointments that plagued him would presumably remain-- but for the sake of all the incapacitated lives circling his absence.

Freshly returned to his old life, George discovers that his family and friends have rallied around him and that on Christmas Eve, his life once ruined, is renewed. It's perhaps the happiest ending ever, and watching the gratitude and joy radiating forth is beautiful and moving.

The older I get, the more deeply the movie effects me. As lives around me settle, and people commit themselves to jobs they may never love, live in fix-er'up houses and raise imperfect children, the themes in the film seem more germane.

Growing up, George Bailey was a single-combat hero who was destined to go out into the world and cover himself in glory. His was a beautiful and unlimited future. Like all of us. But then stuff happened, and older, looking back, he saw compromise and missed opportunities, feeling disappointed in the life he now inhabited.

It's a Wonderful Life is a brilliant anodyne for such doubts, showing us that even if we believe we've lived a small life, the influence we've had on the world around us is unknowable. Although he never traveled outside of Bedford Falls, he did travel outside of himself and was always present in the lives of others instead of living an anonymous life in the transit of ambition, away from the people who needed him the most.

It's a Wonderful Life reassures us, letting us know that even if we've always felt subordinate, like a background shepherd in the play of our own life-- rather than the star of it-- that there's beauty and value in that, too. Our lives are only as big as the people we love, and who love us in return.

The rest is decoration.

Michael Murray is a freelance writer. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.

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