Holding on to this Wonderful Life

CW/TW Suicidal ideation

I don’t get to spend Christmas at home every year, we alternate, as do many people, between parents and in-laws and home. So far I think we’ve spent only two here together, and we’re trying to develop some traditions.

Every year Hebden Bridge Picture House plays “It’s A Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve. Last time we went I admit I wasn’t totally taken with it. We were upstairs, it was full, and hot – I felt rushed and too conscious of my discomfort squishing into the old seats. But this time it was lovely. We went for the matinee showing. I settled down with a cup of coffee and a cake (which I didn’t eat but it’s worth mentioning a cinema where you can have a nice mug of coffee and home made cakes – or, as many others were partaking, beer or wine. I can’t imagine most matinee performances sell as much beer but it was Christmas after all.)

It’s a funny choice for a Christmas film really, where the pivotal scene is a man’s suicidal crisis. But it got me thinking all the way through about what it says about mental health, suicide prevention, self care, society, capitalism, selfishness and selflessness. It may be one catastrophic circumstance that pushes George Bailey to a bridge over a churning river, contemplating his death to solve other people’s problems with his life insurance – but before that he is not really a happy man. It may be that night of desperation, and the prayers of the townsfolk send up in his name which attract the attention of God, the Universe, and Joseph, and lead them to send Clarence Oddbody, (Angel, 2nd Class) down to save him – but as with many people – George’s suicidal thoughts come as the culmination of a long period of distress, made up of a variety of different problems.

Clarence is helpfully given a crash course in the key things we need to know about George’s life. Of course there is plenty more to a person’s life, but we can all look back and see these crucial moments which have significant impact, or switch the points on the railroad tracks of our lives to send us down a different path than that which we expected.

First up for George is saving his brother’s life. Playing on a frozen pond, his younger brother crashes through the ice and George doesn’t hesitate to dive in and rescue him. This leaves him with a nasty cold and ear infection which eventually takes his hearing in one ear. This illness will have had some impact on his development – the disability certainly impacts him later in life when it prevents him from fighting in the war like his hero brother and friends. That early teenage time – when we are forming out adult identity – is important, and problems in this are often involved in later issues of self esteem or dissatisfaction. We see George post illness working in the drug store, oblivious to the youthful admiration of his future wife Mary and good time girl Violet. His thoughts are not on anything so mundane as a girlfriend – George dreams of travelling the world, exploring the wonders shown to him in his National Geographic magazine. That is his idea of his identity. Who he wants to be, what he wants for his life. However our mind is trickier than that, it doesn’t necessarily give us what we want. Something subtler is happening in our subconscious, the result of our genetics, our early education and experiences. George’s rescue of his brother is merely the first example we are given of him saving someone else’s bacon. He is a good guy, desperate to do the right thing, prepared to disregard the negative consequences for himself if it will prevent the the other coming to harm or losing out. Next up he realises that his boss, Mr Gower the pharmacist, blind drunk and out of his mind with grief at losing his son, has made a grave error in filling a prescription, inexplicably filling a packet with poison pills instead of whatever cures diptheria. Unable to get the advice of his father (and sparking a life long enmity with Henry Potter by defending him in an argument) young George goes back and braves the wrath of Mr Gower, gets a beating on his bad ear, but is able to make him realise his mistake, averting disaster.

George is a talented man. He wants to be an architect, after his travels. He is intelligent and innovative, with an eye for opportunity. But instead of greedily keeping those ideas to himself, he shares them liberally. He comes up with the idea to put a swimming pool under a moving floor in the school gymnasium, he recommends his friend invests in plastics, and build his factory near Bedford Falls where there is both cheap real estate and a large pool of available labour. So why is it that George is on the bridge wringing his hands and praying for help, rather than luxuriating in a skyscraper he built after years of globe trotting?

Sometimes life gets in the way, doesn’t it. Things happen. In George’s case, his father dies suddenly on the eve of his graduation. He forgoes his year travelling – presumably to help comfort his mother, and also to help at the Building and Loan which his father had set up to allow working men a chance to own a decent home and get out of the grips of slum landlords like Potter. He is about to head off to College, but at the crucial moment the board insists he stay to run things as his father would have wanted, or else they will bow to Potter’s demand to liquidate the whole operation. So. He stays. Even though his Uncle and others urge him to go – say it’s not the end of the world. He sends his brother off instead, figuring he will come back and take his turn at the Building and Loan and release George from his obligations in four years time.

But no. Of course it isn’t to be. Harry returns with a wife, and a fancy job offer. For all his pledge that he’ll reject it if George wants him to – he clearly hasn’t told his wife that. He knows George, Good Guy ™ that he is, wouldn’t want him to lose out on such a chance. George will let go all his dreams and stay in Bedford Falls, consoling himself in the waiting arms of Mary, marrying and building a family, helping others to achieve their dreams building homes in the affordable haven of Bailey Park. He doesn’t even get to go on Honeymoon, ending up using his savings to stave off a run on the bank in the Great Depression.

You could say he seems happy at certain points in the retrospective. He clearly loves his wife and children. His essential goodness is innate, not forced. He doesn’t hold it over people, expect gratitude or reward as some people might. But he is tired. And there is a bitterness, a resentment, that runs deep within. He doesn’t want it. Most of him doesn’t really feel that way – but he has never let go of his dreams. His table is full of models and plans for buildings he will likely never build. He sees the glass half empty – not the beautiful home they have created out of a broken down ruin, but the creaks and draughts that remain, the loose knob on the banister, not the warm hearth and music in the air.

That resentment has eaten away at his joy. He doesn’t blame his father, his mother, his brother, his wife – Sam “Hee-Haw” Wainwright (though God knows I do, the annoying creature). He has chosen at every step. But even though we might accept that we wouldn’t choose differently even if we could go back – it doesn’t stop us mourning for what might have been. Always yearning for the greener grass of alternative futures. (Notice how we never think that those different choices would go wrong).

So when it seems that yet again he is going to feel the need to take the fall for someone else’s actions – when his hapless Uncle Billy “loses” the $8000 he was meant to deposit in the bank on the day the bank examiner comes to check their affairs, George erupts. He sees himself lose it all, his business, home, family, liberty. In the first moments he shouts “it won’t be me that goes to jail for it” – but quickly he reverts to type and starts to try and dig his way out. Debases himself to his enemy in vain, begs funds from a wealthy friend but can’t get in touch. And when this fails he thinks of the insurance, and makes his way to the bridge in despair.

It’s undeniable that George has problems. A long history of trials, disappointment, debt, depression, which colours our view of life, building to a final trigger which pushes him to consider final, drastic action.

Of course at this point Clarence falls from above into the waves, triggering George’s instinct to save him, and giving him a chance to see the value of his life. George admits he doesn’t want to die – again he’s thinking of others, the impact on his family – but instead he wishes he had never been. And in this Christmas classic it is not the Scrooge like Potter who gets the vision, not Christmas Past, Present or Yet to Come – but what might have been, had George never been born.

Clarence helps George to see what he has. How the world is a better place for him being in it. He helps him through that terrible, lonely moment. Gives him the insight he needs to have hope. Coming back to his home George still has all the problems he had before, but he now sees all that he missed before. Blessings large and small. The recognition of friends, the familiarity of his home, his wife, his children, the annoying loose knob on the banister.

I found myself pondering the messages of the film. What might have prevented George from reaching that moment of doubt and pain? What could he have done differently? What could others have done to help him?

Of course there is the Disney do-over, where nothing bad happens, and everyone behaves as they should. Harry doesn’t smash through the ice so doesn’t need saving, the pharmacist’s son doesn’t die, so there is no mistake with the pills, their father doesn’t die of a stroke so George goes travelling, goes to College, builds his skyscrapers. But would he have been happy?

Lets gloss over the Disney-ness of the actual ending, and come back to it in a bit.

You can’t say it’s wrong for George to make the sacrifices he does. Everyone has the right to put others first. It is a message to all of us to think about, and be grateful for the sacrifices others make to give us the opportunities and privileges we enjoy. To consider the needs of those we love. Much as Mary loves him and makes him a happy home – when they as teenagers throw stones though the windows of the old ruined house that would later be their married home, making wishes for the future, she doesn’t hesitate to wish away his dreams in favour of her own.

Then there are those whose actions hurt us. The models of how we should not be. It is clear from the outset that Potter has no care for anyone’s wellbeing except his own, but for the most part he is just a typical Free Market Capitalist, making hay on the misfortunes of others, blaming them for not being able to get out of the trap he has devised. But mostly he stops short of actual criminality, still causing enough woe along the way. Sam Wainright shows us (as far as we can see) a model of someone who does well without being so deliberately selfish and malign.

We are reminded that sometimes people can still do harm to others even though they think they are just “looking out for themselves” – like the man in the Building and Loan during the scene where George keeps the place open through the run by doling out his own money – who insists on having every penny of his savings, not just what he needs – thus meaning it is harder for George to help others and risking it all falling apart. But Potter oversteps finally. He keeps the mislaid money, and goes further to call in the police. Some men do evil by doing nothing, others on purpose.

Of course George has his part to play. Being honest – saying no – making sure his needs are met. Imagine if instead of allowing that resentment to build he had been able to acknowledge his frustrations earlier in his life and find a way to find fulfilment, but also take strength and happiness from the help he gives to others. To see the riches in his life without needing a celestial intervention.

On the other hand sometimes we do our loved ones no favours when we act the martyr and seek to solve all their problems, or never correcting their bad behaviour. Should Uncle Billy be allowed to take the consequences of his actions? The most recent example of his forgetfulness, his ineptitude. His family has made excuses for him and carried him along – given him a responsible job he probably isn’t equal to. Assuming he were able to take the blame – legally speaking – why wouldn’t George let him? Without George, it all falls apart. A family struggles. Without Billy it all might run better. Of course he should have been given a chance to stand on his own two feet and find a better path earlier on. Maybe opening a sanctuary for his animals. Much as we love people sometimes for their sake and our own, we must let them see the consequences of their actions, learn from their own mistakes.

So George might have reached his pivotal night with a stronger sense of self, better coping strategies, a more positive view of his life. But still – the crisis might have happened. Whether we see the accident of Billy misplacing the money in Potter’s paper, or the deliberate malevolence of Potter keeping the money despite knowing how it could ruin an avalanche of lives. Bad stuff happens. How do we respond to it?

George casts around in his despair, he asks some people for help – but not everyone. Crucially, he doesn’t tell his wife, doesn’t explain to her his problem, allow her to comfort him or try to find a solution. He doesn’t tell the people who might be in a position to help investigate the situation (the police) or give leeway (the bank examiner). He panics, as we do when we are desperate. But while he rails and reels his wife finds out and pulls together all the people of the town who have been helped by George through the years, and comes up with a sum to exceed the missing money.

Luckily Clarence has pulled off his side of the bargain and George is still there to see the miraculous and heartwarming show of goodwill. Sometimes we need someone to be there for us, to listen, to help us through the darkest moments, be our Clarence Oddbody.

Enjoying this Wonderful Life is a many faceted thing, sometimes we have to overcome more hurdles than others, deal with more challenges. We have to remember to look after ourselves as well as carry out our duties and responsibilities, know when to say no – not ask too much of others, consider their needs. Remember to look at our lives every day and see the good, not just the difficult bits. Be grateful and take joy from the littlest thing. But no matter how swimmingly things may go, sometimes life will throw things at us it is near impossible to deal with alone. So when we are struggling, we must, we absolutely must – talk to people, ask for help, allow people to help us look at things from every different angle and find a way through. Most of us are here to help, whether we end up with wings or not. For every Potter there are a million George Baileys. We need to find them and let them lift us up.

If you are struggling and need someone to listen – ring, or email the Samaritans, text “SHOUT” to 85258 – talk to your GP, or check your local NHS / Council / Mental Health Charity pages for crisis services in your area and please, please talk to your partner, family & friends.

Samaritans 116 123

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