What I Learned From George Bailey


It’s a Wonderful Life is a perennial classic for many people but it was not until I saw it in a theater during high school and rediscovered it with new eyes that I  came to truly appreciate this film on a deeper level.

On subsequent viewings, so many scenes resonated with me and gained new profound meanings. However, one of the most prominent is really in the periphery. It came with looking closely at the wall of Mr. Bailey’s building and loan. Clearly visible on the wall of the old building is a short epithet. “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” It’s a strikingly beautiful and pithy statement. I have no way of knowing who thought of having this quotation up on the wall but it perfectly encapsulates many of the central themes of the film.

More than anything, the rise, the fall, and the final redemption of George Bailey reminds me what the true meaning of life is. It is to strive to love others–loving them even as much as you love yourself if that’s your wife or your kids or the people that you cross paths with each and every day. Mary, Zuzu, Uncle Billy, Violet, Burt, Ernie, and yes, even the Mr. Potters.  Simple, everyday, common decency is something to be clung to. It might be unassuming and the people who wield it may remain unheralded but that hardly discounts their impact. They know what they’ve done and that’s enough. Trial and tribulation might come again and again, still they never tire of doing good.

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

If we look at the life of George Bailey, he is precisely one of these individuals. This whole film is a culmination of his charity and love towards his fellow neighbors. He never wearies of doing good until the moment when his life comes crashing down on him. It’s at this moment where he finally begins to question the trajectory of his life thus far. He feels like a failure.

And this also speaks into our discontentedness as humans. Like George we want to do great things, gain acclaim, explore the world, and shake off the dust of our crummy lives. Often when life doesn’t wind up the way we want, we think that we’re failures. Our lives have seemingly become so mundane and insignificant. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. That’s what George tells himself for a time and he lets bitterness dictate his life.

But it’s precisely in those moments that he is reminded that no man is a failure who has friends–a community around him who is willing to lift him up and rally around him when he’s at his lowest. That’s why the final moments of the film always ring so sweet because to me they reflect the perfect community — surrounded by all these people that George impacted in one way or another. They are a testament to the life he led, all singing “Auld Lang Syne” in a joyful chorus. And the money they bring to bail him out is only a visible outpouring of their affection for him.

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

Ultimately, George reaped the reward for all his sacrifices and everything he gave up for others. But it hardly seems like a matter of karma. George did these things because he truly cared about people. As his father did before him. He was never looking to gain anything from them. That was not his character.

And this always leads me to  a bit of soul-searching. George with the help of Clarence literally sees the world as if he never existed and we too can play this kind of hypothetical game. If I died tomorrow or disappeared off the face of the earth, would anyone care? It’s a sobering question, but if we look at George Bailey the answer is an emphatic “YES!” His not having existed has seismic consequences on his surrounding community. It’s entire identity literally changes when he’s not there.

George Bailey taught me and continues to teach me time and time again what it means to leave a positive impact on the world at large. In my life, every day, I want to make the most of the time I have with other people. Because each life has the opportunity to touch so many others. To put it another way, I’ve read before that there are no neutral encounters you either breath life into other people or you take it away. I do not want to squander the opportunities afforded me and George Bailey models that so exquisitely.

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

15 thoughts on “What I Learned From George Bailey

  1. I loved this, all of it. George Bailey is one of those characters you never forget. You see him at his the lowest, most bitter point of his life and you still cheer for the guy – and it’s because, as you pointed out, he truly does care for other people.

    This film always makes me cry during the last scene. It’s such a beautiful, hopeful ending…and your post almost made me a little teary thinking about it!

    Thank you for joining the blogathon with this inspirational look at the legendary George Bailey.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Really nice, I agree and watch it every year too, because like you point out this movie more than any other can restore your faith in people and lift you when you start to get pessimistic. Thanks so much for joining the blogathon with this one


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  6. We clearly saw two different movies. When it comes to film blogging, I’m mostly know for being the “Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies” guy, but I decided over the holidays to start a new series called “Movies Everybody Loves That I Hate,” and It”s A Wonderful Life was Episode #1.

    Episode #2 is coming soon…will it be another movie you love?


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