By Jerry Waxler
Every year millions of people watch the movie “It’s a wonderful life” in which Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel stops him from killing himself by showing him how his life has made a difference in people’s lives. Once he sees the bigger picture, he regains confidence and charges back into the fray. Why has this movie become an annual ritual for so many people? Of course, we love to see the hero overcome obstacles and save the town from the greedy landlord. But I think we are attracted to this movie for a much deeper reason. The fear that crept into Stewart’s mind, that his life was not worthwhile, could overtake any of us.
If we lose our sense of making a difference, we too start to lose our way, not necessarily contemplating suicide, but questions creep up. “If no one cares what I do, what’s the point?” So while for most of us, our situation is not as dramatic as Stewart’s, we can still empathize with his plight, as well as empathize with his need for deeper meaning. We would all benefit from finding that sense of engagement.
Fortunately, the movie is not about changing the past. The actions that restored Stewart’s faith took place years ago. The angel simply gave Stewart the gift of sight so he could see how these actions helped. I think this is what keeps us coming back to the movie year after year – the hope to see that we made a difference.
So while we’re waiting for our own angel, what can we do to find meaning in our lives? Try writing a memoir. Writing is the way we remind ourselves of all sorts of things. Take for example a shopping list. When I realize I need something at the store, the thought seems so real, so obvious, so compelling. But if I don’t write it on a list, that idea turns out to have been fleeting. I’ll stand at the store surrounded by thousands of items, but the one I wanted a few days before now simply blends in.
It’s the same thing with memories. As they occur, they seem so vivid. By writing them, I gradually compile a list of times I was able to help people. The efforts I made at work kept not only my own paycheck coming but also contributed to the business that supports many other people as well. My presence at a funeral or during a divorce offered support exactly when it was needed. I list moments of generosity and victories over my own limitations.
Am I going to find only times I saved people from despair and ruin? Of course not. I’m not a character in a movie. I see plenty of times when taking care of myself obscured my concern for others. In fact, when I was younger, I rarely thought about my impact on other people.
Seeing less than perfect actions in the past seems like it should upset me, but instead it has turned out to be exhilarating. By looking squarely at the way my life played out, I understand more about who I am, and how my story interacts with the world. Instead of feeling worse about my life, I see those events as part of a dynamic force. I grew, I tried things, made mistakes, learned from them, and kept going. The story with all its ups and downs had a continuity that carried me through the years.
Telling about the past at first seems like a simple act of remembering. But then out of the story emerge lessons that help me make the most of my actions today, so I can move in a worthwhile direction, and do things that make a difference tomorrow. In the movie, the angel didn’t say much. He just showed Stewart how the story works. Based on those observations Stewart drew his own conclusions. As I write, I go through the same process he did, and I’m drawing the same conclusion, too. It turns out it really is a wonderful life.