Grief, Holiday Blues & The Joy Of It's A Wonderful Life

Getting into the holiday spirit has been — to say the least — challenging this year. The weather has been bizarre in New York City. Instead of flurries in the air, there is fear and palpable anxiety. Many people are visibly skittish, suspicious of one another in the subways; I count myself among them, scanning for potential signs of impending disaster, thinking always about Paris and San Bernardino, wondering when and where the next tragedy will strike.

On a more personal note, this is the first Christmas I'll spend without my father, and there's a bubble of dread inside my chest that I'm worried will explode sometime around December 25. Given the authority, I would happily just cancel the remainder of 2015 and dig into the new year without lingering on festivities.

And yet. Something about grief and ominous headlines makes me want more than ever to seek out the good in things. I find myself savoring kind encounters with strangers, and trying to connect meaningfully with the people I'm around every day. It has dawned on me that I'm actively searching for cheer — the smallest, sparkling scraps of it — wherever it might be hiding. Most recently, I traced it to a West Village cinema, during a showing of the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.

Somehow, this award-winning movie has never come up in my various streaming queues. (In my family, Gone With the Wind is our holiday film of choice.) But with 28 winters behind me, I decided that this was the year I would finally watch Jimmy Stewart discover the meaning of Christmas. In case you're as unfamiliar as I was, It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey (Stewart), a man beset by existential crisis. George embodies the definition of righteousness: He's just good, in a heartwarming and oftentimes self-defeating way. He's the sort of person you root for — as well as the kind you ache for when he's down.

The best we can hope for is a guardian — like George, or Clarence — to save us from forces we could never see hurtling our way.

George has big plans for his own life. He wants something more adventurous for himself than running his father's humble business, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. But just when he's about to make his escape into the big bright world, he is called on to take over, and George sends his younger brother Harry to college in his place. After their father dies, George passes on the opportunity to dissolve the business, knowing that the town needs it to remain afloat. He marries a beautiful woman (Donna Reed) whose heart is equally generous. They have a mess of kids and no great wealth, but they lovingly hammer out a life together.

When — by no fault of his own — the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan is suspected of lying about its finances, George takes the blame. Devastated and humiliated, he considers trading his own life to fix the error. "I'm worth more dead than alive," he laments before attempting suicide. Then an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) steps in to show him what the world really would have been like had George never been born.

The alternative reality is unbearably bleak. Early on in the film, we watch George save his little brother from drowning in an icy pond; without him, Harry, who grows up to become a war hero, wouldn't have lived past the age of 9. There are many moments like this one: times when an absence of George yields a turn for the worse. I watched them play on the screen of a small, nearly empty theater, a box of Raisinettes in one hand and disintegrating tissues clutched in the other.

Friends and fellow film lovers warned me that this movie was going to be a tearjerker. And while it takes little to push me over the brink lately, even I was surprised at the amount of sobbing I did before 11:30 a.m. An early scene, in which a very young George stops the town druggist from accidentally delivering poison pills to a sick child, left me completely beside myself.

The gift of watchful goodness is one that often goes unnoticed and unthanked. But it may be the the most precious one we could ever give or receive.

The druggist, lost in the sadness of his own son's death, isn't thinking straight. George steps in and prevents the fatal error. Before he understands why George never delivered the pills, the druggist strikes him, boxing his ears, making the left one — which was damaged forever the day George saved Harry from drowning — bleed. After George explains why he didn't make the drop-off, the druggist weeps, overwhelmed by fright at what could have been, and grateful for this earnest child who has saved him.

I hiccuped through this scene, moved by the tenderness and fragility. It is frightening to consider the ways in which minor edits reroute the trajectory of tragedy; it is equally unnerving to be reminded of how very vulnerable we all are, and in whose hands our fates rest. The best we can hope for is a guardian — like George, or Clarence — to save us from forces we could never see hurtling our way. The gift of watchful goodness is one that often goes unnoticed and unthanked. But it may be the the most precious one we could ever give or receive.

Hours later, I stepped out into the bright sunshine of early afternoon. As I walked a few blocks to the subway, I couldn't stop thinking about a quote that hung on the wall of the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan offices, underneath a picture of George Bailey's late father. "All you can take with you is that which you've given away," it reads in plain, unembellished text. I know it's a well-worn, even cliché sentiment.

But I've scrawled it across a notepad on my desk all the same: It cheers me up. This may be a tough year for me to embrace any kind of true holiday spirit. But I won't stop doing my best to give. And if nothing else, I will keep trying with all my heart to be good.


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