When It's a Wonderful Life, a staple of the Christmas TV season, first appeared in the 1946, it was a box office disappointment. Although it received numerous academy award nominations, many considered it overly sentimental. While the ending is a trifle schmaltzy, this criticism overlooks just how dark the film is. Reduced to suicidal despair by the financial collapse of his Bailey Savings and Loan, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is visited by an angel and given the dubious gift of non-being. Unrecognized by family and friends, he wanders through a Bedford Falls, now dominated by the ruthless banking capitalist, Mr. Potter. Hope, in this film, arises not by avoiding tragedy and the threat of despair, but by passing through them.
Because of our current financial crisis, the film seems freshly relevant. Business professors have been using clips to illustrate what a bank run looks like. And some media commentators, including one in the NY Times, have compared the Bailey S &L to Fannie May and Freddie Mac. Both sorts of institution sought to expand the number of homeowners, but the similarities end there. So far as I can discern, Fannie and Freddie are not real persons residing in the same neighborhoods as those to whom they gave loans; nor are they willing to make personal financial sacrifices to keep neighbors in their homes. George Bailey had no golden parachute, unless you want to count his leap into icy waters. In the film, accountability is made possible by local control and face-to-face interaction between the S&L and its clients.
The difference between Bailey S&L and Fannie and Freddie points up a problem with our increasing dependence upon impersonal national and international forces. The famous French commentator on America, Alexis de Tocqueville, worried that the predominance of large-scale politics would foster hopelessness, a sense among ordinary citizens that what is most important in their lives is beyond their control.
And yet national politics, in the form of the election of an African-American as president, has certainly provided, as John McCain noted in his generous concession speech, grounds for hope that America can overcome some of the worst features of its past. However much we might want to celebrate what Obama's achievement represents for the story of race in America, we should be wary of locating our hopes too much in the national sphere. Political popularity is a fickle thing, as is clear from the plummeting of President Bush's once soaring approval rating. Moreover, democratic politics is by design messy and contentious. Divisive issues, from foreign policy and taxation to abortion and gay marriage, are not going to disappear.
Of course we need to have hope for our nation and its institutions, but one of the lessons of It's a Wonderful Life is that our strongest grounds for hope reside in our local communities, in our families, churches, schools, and places of work, in the trust we place in the guidance, friendship, and support of those with whom we interact everyday. Tempted by despair, George Bailey comes to see what a difference he has made in the lives of others and how their lives have impacted his own. Such a realization gives rise to renewed hope.
Another lesson from the film, and one we should have learned from the recent economic meltdown, is that hope is not to be confused with optimism, with a determination to look on the bright side without regard for facts. Some still seem to believe that debts can continue to mount so long as we are upbeat about the economy and keep spending. Some economists argue for another stimulus package and claim that the last was ineffective only because people decided to pay down their debts rather than spend. That's not a cause for hope, but the promotion of an illusion.
The renewal of true hope is a mystery and a gift. It is worth remembering that It's a Wonderful Life, based on the short story "The Greatest Gift," is a Christmas story, the triumph of unexpected hope over pervasive despair. One of the most dramatic depictions of renewed hope has to be the scene toward the end of It's a Wonderful Life when a jubilant and hopeful George Bailey runs through the streets of Bedford Falls shouting, "Merry Christmas!"