Re-watching the old film It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, the classic ending really bothers me. An angel, sent by God, helps a man change his mind about committing suicide by showing him what life would be like for his loved ones if he had never been born. The key to the plot is that life turns out to be bad for them, and some people are even dead. What if life had been better for them? What if his wife had married some other man, had had different kids, and had been just as happy? Would that have justified George Bailey’s suicide? That is, how do we value the worth of a man’s life? It’s A Wonderful Life does it by showing what effect that life has on other lives. I suppose it works in the dramatic sense — it makes for a good and touching story with a good and touching closing scene. But it doesn’t really espouse an honest message. Instead it encourages a sort of “if-it-weren’t-for-me” sense of self-worth, which I think risks being more warped and prideful than honest.
When we ask “what is the worth of a man’s life?” it’s really an incomplete question, because worth is not an objective value. What is a man’s life worth to whom? To another man? To himself? To God?
The great thing about the worth of a man’s life to God is that it never changes. There’s nothing you can do to make God think less of you. He created you and knows you too completely. The bad thing about the worth of a man’s life to God is that it’s hard to detect. It’s not apparent. God doesn’t tuck you into bed at night or give you flowers or shower you with love songs. And while we might still feel God’s love in some ways, we can never feel it completely, and it’s easy to forget about it and/or doubt it exists at all. And even if we do believe it, we can’t understand it. It’s hard and unnatural for us to value others in some unchanging way like that. It may be a comforting thought to know our worth to God is more than we can understand, but we can’t relate to it. So someone like Hitler had worth to God?! A man who murdered millions and millions of people? Yes. That is not to say that actions don’t matter, but they don’t matter to God’s sense of your worth. Hitler, and any wicked man you can think of, is worth just as much to God as you are. Can’t accept that? Join the majority of humans.
This concept is completely ignored in the It’s A Wonderful Life ending. Instead, George Bailey is encouraged to change his sense of self-worth by being frightened by the conveniently poor circumstances of his community had he not been born. In the real world, that just might not work. Without you being born, the world might very well be much the same, if not better. If that’s where you’re getting your sense of self-worth, of course you will have problems.
The angel in the movie, Clarence, leaves George with this quote: “Dear George, remember: no man is a failure who has friends.” It reminds me of another quote from The Muppet Christmas Carol that the reformed Scrooge sings in his final song: “If you want to know the measure of a man, you simply count his friends.” I don’t like these quotes; they’re placing more emphasis on the value of friendship than the value of being a good person, as if having friends somehow makes you a good person. If you’re a good person, it doesn’t matter how many friends you have. Certainly it’s nice to have them and it’s good to be thankful for them, but they should not be sought out for the sake of themselves. Friends are not a vital recipe to life. A man should be honest and virtuous first. If being honest and virtuous costs him friendship, so be it. A moral man with no friends is better than a wicked man with many friends. I suppose the problem is that it’s natural for a man to get a sense of self-worth by trying to see himself through the eyes of others, and the more friends he has, the better he feels about himself. I think that is very misguided. It would be better if Clarence had written: “Dear George, remember: no man is a failure who follows the way of the Lord” or “Dear George, remember: no man is a failure who trusts in God” — maybe those are a bit more cheesy, but they’re much more truthful, which Clarence, being an angel, should know.
What George Bailey really needed was not a change in his sense of self-worth. He needed to be reminded of his priorities. He got way too emotional about money, and the awful consequences of not having enough (like going to jail). He needed to be reminded of how important his friends and family were to him. His problems had nothing to do with him being born or not. And that’s what made the alternate reality effective; the absence of his loved ones as he knew them, not the remembrance of the virtuous deeds of his past. That’s just messy screenwriting.