It's a Wonderful Life is -- by far -- my favorite movie. I've seen it at least 20 times, in every incarnation: colorized renditions, the two-hour edited-for-TV cut and the full-length version projected onto the big screen. I've even gone as far as visit the spot where Liberty Films erected the original Bedford Falls' set at RKO's former movie ranch in Encino, CA.
I well up with tears every time (spoiler alert) the townsfolk rescue George Bailey by donating their own money to replace George's missing bank funds stolen by the evil Mr. Potter.
But a troubling question has burrowed its way into my enjoyment of the holiday classic the last few years: What if George Bailey had forsaken banking and followed his dream to be an architect?
At first blush, George's selfless act of forgoing college to take over his deceased father's savings and loan seems noble. George's decision thwarts Mr. Potter's greedy attempts to control Bedford Falls, and improves the lives of George's family and friends. But what is the cost to George and the rest of us when we let our heart's desire wither and die?
What about the realities of the months, years and decades following that night? George still had to return to the daily grind of running a dull business he loathed, while the longing to design and build architectural wonders still, most likely, ached inside him.
Like George, my Uncle Jay ran a backhoe business he tolerated for 40 years. Before he died of lung cancer two years ago, Uncle Jay confessed to me -- during his final Christmas on earth -- that he loved creating artwork when he was a young man. This was a surprise to me because he never revealed any hint of an artistic side. His Pennsylvania German, blue-collar father never took art seriously. Art was something the women did in their spare time when they stitched quilts or knitted afghans. Uncle Jay suppressed his creative impulses and dug sewer holes with his backhoe instead.
It seems a majority of parents teach their children to sacrifice their dreams for financial security. They encourage their sons and daughters to pursue employment that promises steady paychecks -- the same types of passionless careers they, and their parents before them, endured until retirement. What if our generation turned that notion on its ear? What if we encouraged our children, siblings and spouses to follow their life's passions?
Imagine if George Bailey's wife, Mary, pulled George aside and said,
I know you're miserable working at the savings and loan. Why don't we find someone to buy the business? Maybe there's a person in New York City who's tired of the fast pace and noise, and dreams of owning a small business in a quiet community. Let's run an ad in the New York Times' classifieds until we find the right person who shares our ideals.
And what if Mary then said: "George, you'll be free to follow your dream. Let me help you find a way to do that." Shouldn't supporting the heart's desires of our family and friends be a requirement of love? That's what my parents and sister did for me eight Christmases ago when I decided to step away from a secure, decade-long advertising job to pursue my dream of writing books and screenplays. Their unwavering support inspired the grandest adventure of my life.
I will watch It's a Wonderful Life again this holiday season, and will cry when George's friends and family help him avoid jail and keep his savings and loan, but I would weep happier tears if in the script his loved ones joined together and said, "Let's do everything in our power to help George become an architect. That's who he really is deep down inside."
And in this new version of It's a Wonderful Life little Zuzu would look up at her father and say, "Every time someone realizes his dreams an angel gets his wings."
"That's right," George would smile and say. "That's right."
That's the ending -- or the beginning -- I wish for George... and for each of us.