In the few hours I had yesterday to relax post-gift explosion, post paperwork, and post a really good dinner, the family and I watched two movies: one of my favorites of all time (“It’s A Wonderful Life”) and an over-the-top Spielberg animation movie (“The Polar Express”). I was in one of those philosophical moods — not exactly sleep deprived but not all bright and cheery either. Anyway, these are my thoughts.
It began with The Polar Express — a movie I had seen in 3D with the kids when it first came out. A warning — NEVER bring little kids to see this movie in 3d with full-sense-around sound. When the train drives over your head, it looks, sounds, and scares the life out of you as though it were real. Try holding a shaking while YOUR heart-rate is still above normal and see how fun it is.
At home, on our TV screen at least, the movie takes on a gentler tone, and becomes a movie about — of all things — faith. The beginning of the movie features two different boys struggling with the same question: Do I believe and get on the train or do I let my disbelief get the best of me and let it go? One boy gets on after deciding “no” and changing his mind. The other one pretty much stays with his “no” answer until the others stop the train and wait for him. In a theme reminiscent of Walter Wangerin’s Ragman, the “believers” stop the train and go back and get the little boy for whom “Christmas just doesn’t work out”. This boy doesn’t really make it to the big train cars, even after he gets on the train — because he doesn’t think he fits, and he doesn’t want to pretend he does, which is, of course, his choice. The community of kids stop the train, go and get the kid, bring him hot chocolate and still he doesn’t leave his car to check out the big train where all the fancy things happen. But the community respects him enough, generally, to let him stay where he chooses and lets him come to them at his own pace. They bring him to the North Pole and he has to choose to move, to get out of the car he’s in, and to go see The Big Man Himself.
Whatever has happened to this child, it seems to be more than “I didn’t get a sled last year”. maybe it was the story on the news of the family that died in a Christmas fire, and maybe it was the look of the boy’s house in the movie that did it, but I was thinking real trauma from real life had taken away this boy’s reason to even hope for a better life. This is the kind of thing that happens in people’s lives all the time. This (to use the psycholical term) “learned helplessness” requires extra care and work from an outsider to allow hope (and later choice) to happen. First comes rescue, then maybe daring to hope, then hope itself, then daring to try, then actual belief.
The other boy — the one called “Hero Boy” in the subtitles — is too smart for belief. For him, much like Thomas in the gospels, only seeing will work to create belief and hope. But there is a part of him that wants to believe, just as I think Thomas did. Experience, “reality”, intellect, “growing up”, puberty, whatever it is, gets in the way and covers over his heart and his hope and his belief, but the spark of hope still burns somewhere within him until he’s left with, “what’s the worse thing that could happen if I believed?”. Turns out you could die on a mountain railroad or a frozen over pond, or see a ghost hit his head on a low tunnel, or be stopped by elks, but — in the end — the North Pole actually does exist — and far more incredibly than anyone could have imagined.
As I watched, I thought of how much of faith is like that. As we begin to remember the preposterous that we once knew , we begin to hope that castles and fairies and Santa and a beautiful reality exists somewhere. We know too well that life makes sense most of the time. Still, love and hope and the Creator of it all aren’t always sensible — they’re extravagant and real. So first, we get on the train because we woke up, then because we could escape the cold and get comfortable, then for some period of time, things get dangerous as reality itself gets unhinged for the smart person and the depressed one, the black one, the white one, the male and female, the courageous and the disliked know-it-all. And if you stay on the journey long enough you get to see something like what you’ve dreamed about — only way, way better in ways and degrees you couldn’t even imagine. This is what faith promises, or hopes for, or believes in. It makes the crazy impossible train and the long walk through the snow to help others soooo worth it. What the boy was hoping for was a local town fair. What he gets is Disneyland, 6 Flags, and the Cathedral all in one. As Christians, we like to think the same way. Buddhists, Taoists, Jews, Muslims all (I think) look at faith the same way. So here’s the deal: you don’t have to get on the train. In fact, if you get on because other people “made” you, you’re probably not going to enjoy it anyway. But if you get on, and it’s even slightly your choice, I can promise you a pretty amazing ride to where ever that thing goes.
The second movie we watched is the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Though it is (horrors!) in black and white, and clearly set in another time, it looks so familiar where it shouldn’t be. Further, critics have called it “hokum” in the past and talked about “Capra corn” and they — as snivelling cynics often do — miss the point. When we as a society lose track of this, we are in serious trouble, which is how we got to here.
Clearly, the movie is about a man (Jimmy Stewart)’s innner demons and his struggle to have a better life away from the people around him whom he doesn’t exactly fit with, but is called to nonetheless. Yes, the themes of “one man’s life impacts those around him” and “life is worth living” are great ones that the movie conveys extremely well, but that’s not what I want to focus on here.
The thing that makes the movie both great and “corny” to cynics is it’s realism. In the town of Bedford Falls, we have the taxi driver and the cop, the librarian and the banker. We also have the immigrant in the slums, the factory worker, and the factory owner who’s lucky to “get in on the ground floor”. We have the forgetful and the deaf, the High School hero and the supposedly “loose woman”. We have the drunken and the sorrowful who either escape their fate or don’t. We have children who catch colds while playing and others who are lucky to survive them. There are people simply trying to get by (George Bailey and his family), there are people making progress for their family (like Martini’s new house), and there are people in Mr. Potter’s slum — and they all live together in the world that is Bedford Falls. All of these folks make up what we now refer to as “the 99%” while one man — Mr. Potter — owns nearly all of it and wants it all.
He is the man at the draft board who determines who will live and who will die, just as he is the man who sets the rents and rates at home that could determine who lives or dies. He is the man who owns it all, but has nothing. He’s the man who makes the Congressman wait til he’s done. He’s the man that calls the police over one act of bad banking while he lives his entire life acting unethically. As Jimmy Stewart’s George says in a time of economic crisis, “Potter’s not selling, he’s buying”. What he’s trying to buy is control over their “measly little riff-raff” lives while they “do most of the working and living and dying in [that] town”. As George says, “Isn’t it fair that they should do that with a roof over their heads?”
Those of us who are like George have every right to want to leave all of that working and living and dying behind and live out our dreams. We have every right to live out our destinies. But if we leave behind the rest of Bedford Falls behind mentally, if we forget that the drunk and the floozie are connected to us, if we forget that the world is made up of all those other people — with their shades of good and bad, smart and not-so-smart, we leave the world of Bedford Falls to people like Mr. Potter.
Pretty soon, children are dying from “regular life” accidents like kids playing on the pond, houses are taken away or never built, and corruption reigns in the streets — all of the things that could have been prevented if we had cared enough to know both the Sam Wainrights and the Mr. Gowers of the world and formed a bridge between them in our community, both Bert the cop and Violet the “it” girl.
The picture of community in “It’s A Wonderful Life” is what America used to be — a connected mass of one life touching and building up another. It’s a tough life, as much as it is a wonderful one, but people make progress because they know and care about each other, and they protect each other from the Mr. Potters of the world, who care nothing about them and threaten\ “offer” to dislodge people from each other.
Bedford Falls is the Social Contract in action, the psychology of community vs. our fear of co-dependence. It is the best of America for the most people, but it isn’t always fair for the George Baileys out there. It’s so unfair at times that we may want to die, but in the end it’s that very community that saves us.
We need to protect ourselves from the Mr. Potters of the world who take but give little back, who divide and conquer, who remove the very thing that keeps us going after a hard day working and living and dying. But we need to do that by accepting that George Bailey has a job to do right here at home in Bedford Falls.