I love inspiring movies, I really do. Give me a (deserved) happy ending any day. I believe in the power of storytelling to transform hearts and minds, and point people toward what’s good, beautiful, and true. But a satisfying ending in a story is what Aristotle would call “better than the real.” Stories can offer insight, but they can’t be the literal answer.
Take It’s a Wonderful Life, for example. Inspiring, right? George’s friends come through in the final hour. An angel gets his wings. Everyone leaves the theater (or living room) happy and fulfilled because the story ends on a high note and all seems right with the world. They’ve forgotten that, UM, HELLO, FIVE MINUTES AGO HE WAS TRYING TO KILL HIMSELF.
George Bailey is a hero because he sacrifices all his hopes and dreams in order to help other people. Admirable, right? When he wants to explore the world, he stays home to take care of the family business. When he still wants to explore the world, he gets married and has kids. And then he helps the town, and then he stands up for the oppressed, and then he stands by his brother (who got to see the world.) And he keeps denying himself until HE WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF.
I always hoped that if the movie hadn’t ended there, in the next scene George says, “So long, suckas!” and runs off with the money to Tahiti. Maybe he blows the whole wad on seventeen mai tais and a grass skirt. Then he goes home to his family and learns to set healthy boundaries with his friends and community.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life. We are not given hopes and dreams so they can be cast aside. They are made from the same material as our soul. To deny them is to deny the essence of ourselves. It’s that important that George finds a way to get the heck out of Bedford Falls for once, before he kills himself. Helping others is noble, but when it replaces your soul’s work, it’s codependent. It doesn’t matter how many people like you because of what you can do for them. You’re going to find a way back to to the edge of that bridge because your soul is in jeopardy. If George’s dream was to run the Savings and Loan for the rest of his life, I wouldn’t be worried about him.
I have, at times, seen a lot of myself in good ‘ol George. I would like to think that there is a reward, eventually, for the times I’ve sacrificed my hopes and dreams for the sake of others. But I also know George’s trajectory. I see this movie as a cautionary tale. Sometimes it’s better for your soul to let people down and take the vacation.