Lessons of “Wonder”

By Jon Carvalho


It’s Christmas time, and as we gear up for the shopping, the gifts, the food and the family, there’s an important lesson that can be learned – or, rather, relearned – from one of the most popular Christmas movies ever made: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Whether you’ve seen it a hundred times or never heard of it, try to catch it on TV this winter break – it’s usually on a few times before Christmas. It’s ranked the number one most inspirational film by the American Film Institute, beating great flicks like “Rocky” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A film about getting by in hard economic times, its message is especially timely this year.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic is the memorable story of small-town banker George Bailey, who bails out his neighbors and saves the day (and his town, Bedford Falls) in the midst of the Great Depression. Years later, facing financial ruin after a misplaced deposit and the greedy cravenness of the local scumbag business tycoon, Mr. Potter, George contemplates suicide. But he comes to realize what a sad, misery-infested place his town would’ve been without him.

It’s kind of nice to see a bank bailing out its customers, for a change. In fact, looking at the country today, we could use a few more George Baileys to compensate for all the Mr. Potters. This might be what the Occupy Wall Street movement is getting at, but it’s going about it all wrong. Seeing the Occupy UMass protesters with their tents pitched outside Goodell made me think: it’s not the message that’s wrong – it’s the method.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t about punishing the rich, and it isn’t about hating successful people. Sure, Mr. Potter is portrayed as the ultimate robber baron – “a warped, frustrated old man” in the words of George Bailey – but you’ll notice in the movie that on the streets of Bedford Falls, there are no protesters shrieking about the 99 percent. Everyone’s too busy working to be out there. That used to be the way things were done. Instead of complaining, people actually tried to find solutions to their problems. Solutions like working, for example.

What’s great about “It’s a Wonderful Life” is its characterization of sacrificing to help others as a virtue. To prevent the collapse of his little bank and ultimately the entire town, George uses money he’d saved for his own honeymoon to lend to his customers. It’s pretty hard to imagine a bank doing that nowadays. This kind of attitude isn’t popular anymore. It used to be, “we’re all in this together.” Now, “me, me, me,” seems to be pervasive.

The ironic thing about “the 99 percent” is that 99 percent of them are busy trying to be honest, hardworking members of society. They remind me of Mrs. Davis, who when George is divvying up the money for the bank customers, says she doesn’t need the usual $20 – just $17.50 to survive until the bank opens again. It is people like this, people who tell the truth and try to get by with what they can, who are forgotten in times like this. The Wall Street executives could stand to learn from Mrs. Davis; so could the Occupiers.

A friend of mine overheard someone ask about the protesters, “Where do they plug in their iPhones?” That’s a good question. It’s interesting that this group so committed to the struggles of the working class is made up overwhelmingly of white, latte-sipping, Volvo-driving upper-middle class kids whose biggest struggle in life has been deciding on a new iPad case. If the 99 percent needed the help, or voice, or whatever, of these people, they’d be out there themselves demanding it. As a student who’s at school on federal Pell and state grants, I take personal offense to it. You won’t see me camped out of Goodell with a crude cardboard sign, whining about my problems.

In today’s America, where little remains nuanced and everything is conceived with broad strokes in primary colors, a story like “It’s a Wonderful Life” could never happen. People in positions like George, in charge of banks and financial institutions, would never help the little guy who in effect is helping to hold up their business. They’re too far from reality, too detached to see the damage they can inflict on people who have faces and families. And people like the Occupiers are some of the most Potterlike characters there are – warped, frustrated people.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is about taking responsibility, both for yourself and for the good of everyone. At the end of the film, all the people George had once helped end up banding together to loan him the money he needs, saving the bank and the town from Potter’s clutches again. It’s responsibility that’s missing today. At the fringes, nobody is willing to help anybody out, even though generosity ends up benefiting everyone. Some are too busy being greedy, others are busy protesting.

Yeah, we’re in trouble. But we need people who really care about the good of society and are willing to work toward practical goals in productive ways. A suggestion: fold up the tents and go do something constructive. Whining doesn’t help anyone. If you want to help, do something that will really benefit people. Write a letter to your congressman, put a quarter in a Salvation Army bucket, volunteer at a soup kitchen for the holidays. Give someone a hand, be someone’s friend.  After all, we’re told at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life”: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

Jon Carvalho is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]