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.

Merry Christmas!


Anonymous · December 26, 2011 at 9:08 PM

interesting and worthwhile view of the movie. Given to entertain, I’d stick with what they wrote…. but as a moral guide, I think you are onto something most of us overlook. Well played.

Luke · December 28, 2011 at 10:44 AM

True enough, but I think the same rescue wouldn’t necessarily apply to everyone. I think it suits George Bailey largely because of his selflessness in the first place. I mean, even his suicide is motivated by the knowledge that his life insurance will spare a lot of people the coming suffering, but the specific reply is that if he’s looking to do that, his life has been more than effective already. Agreed that this principle can’t be generalized to all humans and all suicides 😛

S P Hannifin · December 28, 2011 at 7:08 PM

But even after he was saved by Clarence and he realizes that suicide is illegal (meaning your life insurance is worthless if you commit suicide), he still wishes he had never been born. I guess the question is: why does he wish this? He may wish it because he thinks life for his loved ones would be better off without him. I think there’s a general problem with that sort of wish, regardless of what visions would get him out of his misery. The problem is that he’s defining the goodness of his past actions and the worth of his past life (and his present life, for that matter) on consequences. Just as the ends doesn’t justify the means, the ends don’t determine the value of the means. If he’s looking to spare his loved ones suffering by killing himself, the effectiveness of past actions should be irrelevant. A more appropriate vision may be one of Heaven or Hell, though that would admittedly be out of Hollywood’s ability to reproduce on the silver screen.

S P Hannifin · December 28, 2011 at 7:25 PM

On a side note, speaking of ends and means, I think this also leads to (or at least reminds me of) the question: what makes an action good or evil if not the consequences? I think it’s the intended consequences, not the actual ones. But even this leads to plenty of sticky situations. You may intend for your daughter to be happy, but she won’t be happy unless you buy her a pony, and you know that spoiling her in such a way would ultimately bring her more misery than joy. Or what if your daughter were a psychopath and wanted someone dead? What do you do then when you know of no good actions, when loved ones want things they shouldn’t be wanting in the first place? (An easy thing to question around Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Christ by trying to express love through the giving of worldly material items.)

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