It’s a Wonderful Life

This has been a crazy week! Considering the state of closures due to the coronavirus, it’s likely to get crazier before things return to any semblance of normalcy. As I’ve navigated the week, I’ve been thinking a lot about George Bailey and how he saved the town of Bedford Falls in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. If you’re not familiar with this classic holiday movie, here’s the gist.

George Bailey reluctantly runs the town’s Building and Loan association. As he’s preparing to leave for his honeymoon, the Great Depression hits and the Building and Loan’s financial stability is challenged. Rather than leave town, George Bailey stays behind and supports the community members by distributing his honeymoon money to them.

It’s one of my favorite scenes of the movie. It shows how calm, principled leadership can guide a ship in times of trouble. As I’ve reflected on this week, however, I’ve started to see how the other characters from the movie acted in that moment and how those actions are also on display in the crisis we’re facing today. Let me explain.

If George Bailey is an example of calm, principled leadership, Mr. Potter exemplifies the calm predator looking to personally benefit from the chaos. As the banking crisis occurs, Mr. Potter sees it as his chance to take over the Building and Loan and much of the businesses in Bedford Falls. George Bailey captures Mr. Potter’s predatory nature in an impassioned speech to the townspeople.

“Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s pickin’ up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve, we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

Look around. Sadly, I see more than a few Mr. Potters lurking around, hoping to personally or professionally benefit from this crisis. Maybe they rationalize it and think they’re helping out in some way. But they’re really only helping themselves.

But Mr. Potter isn’t the only example I want to highlight. Take Tom. Tom sees the crisis and can only consider his own needs and motivations. When George Bailey asks him how much money he would need to get by, Tom asks to withdraw his entire account, $248. When George presses Tom to ask him how much he would need to “just tide him over,” Tom doesn’t budge. He is unwilling to negotiate his beliefs, compromise his expectations, or consider how others may be experiencing the crisis. Seeing Tom’s obstinance, George hands Tom $248.

I’m sure you see a few Toms floating around you right now. This crisis is pushing all of us and challenging our expectations and beliefs. Like Tom, some people are digging in their heels and are unwilling to make any compromise. They want their $248.

While some are digging in their heels, others are rolling up their sleeves. They realize that this crisis may mean making some compromises on behalf of our students but they’re looking at the whole community and the bigger picture. Which brings me to Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Davis is a minor character in the film but she captures a reaction that I also see around me. When George Bailey asks Mrs. Davis how much she needs, she quietly asks, “Could I have $17.50?”

We don’t know a lot about Mrs. Davis from the film, but this scene captures her willingness to make sacrifices for the betterment of the community. Looking around, I see quite a few people who are acting like Mrs. Davis, too.

I know these are challenging times for all of us. But as we see the George Baileys, Mr. Potters, Mrs. Davis and Toms around us, I’m reminded of a great song by the band Foster the People. The chorus goes like this:

“Will all these things I wait for revelation
These things make me want to duck for cover
With all these things I wait for revolution
These things ask the biggest question to me
And it’s are you what you want to be
So are you what you want to be?”

George Bailey? Mr. Potter? Tom? Or Mrs. Davis?

In this time of crisis, are you what you want to be?

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