The Greatest Gift
We all want to make a difference in our lives to make the world the best possible place to live, but so often we may feel “but what can I do?”, very much like the famous Breton Fisherman’s Prayer: “God, Thy Sea is so great and my boat is so small”. As individuals we can often feel this way and that we are unable to make a difference to those around us and the world in general.
One person who must have felt like that was a certain Phillip Van Doren Stern. In 1938 he woke up from a dream that he had which seemed to be similar to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol , but the dream was about a man who spent all his life helping others but feels his life has been without purpose, becomes depressed and suicidal and wishes he had never been born, but is redeemed by an Angel and is ‘born again’. Stern felt strongly that this was a story that the world had to hear and remarked “it’s a universal story for all people in all times”, but although he was a military historian, he had never written a piece of fiction in his life.
It took him 4 years to write the 4,000 word story that he called The Greatest Gift, but no one was interested. He tried to get interest from magazine editors and even farm journals, but no one wanted to publish it. By this time, it was 1943 and like the hero of his story he was refusing to give up. He then sent 200 copies of his little story in his Christmas cards that year and his daughter recalls delivering the leaflets to her teachers and friends.
In 1945 one of those leaflets was seen by an RKO Pictures producer who realised that it could make a really good movie. So, he brought the rights of the story and in 1946 they started filming their version of the book and as they were doing that the actor playing Stern’s main character -James Stewart -wrote a touching personal note to him to thank him for what he had written as it was inspiring the cast and crew to bring it to the screen.
The name of the movie? It’s A Wonderful Life which alongside A Christmas Carol is a perennial Christmas culture essential. Generally regarded as one of the most inspiring and moving films ever made, it has made a lot of difference to many people and part of its message is a) no one is born to be a failure and b) no one is poor who has friends.
I can’t imagine there are too many people out there who have not seen It’s a Wonderful Life, but it tells Stern’s classic story of a simple man -George Bailey- who sacrifices his dreams and his life for the good of the community of Bedford Falls. Rather than travel the world before going to college, he has to put his dreams on hold, and he has to run the family savings bank, but he never gets away and ends up running it permanently making him a very frustrated man. It runs into trouble and he has to forfeit his honeymoon savings to keep the bank going until one Christmas Eve when a large amount of the bank’s money goes missing. At that moment, he feels a failure, that he is doomed and that he (and the world) would be better place with him dead.
A probationary Angel (Clarence) intervenes and shows George Bailey what the world would have been like if he had not lived, so he witnesses Bedford Falls without his influence. His brother dies because he was not there to save him drowning, a chemist gets imprisoned because George was not there to correct his fatal mistake and the town itself has become rundown, sleazy, crime ridden and amoral.
George Bailey sees right before his eyes the huge negative impact of him not being there and what a difference a good decent individual makes to life. He begs Clarence to take him back to his old life, and in an emotional ending, the community come together and donate the money that has gone missing- and Clarence the Angel gets his wings (don’t forget: every time a bell rings an Angel has earned his wings!).
I always watch It’s a Wonderful Life at least once a year not just because it is truly a great movie but its message is an urgent one for us -that all of us make a difference not just to ourselves but to our families, friends, and everyone around us, if only we knew it.
Its director Frank Capra said he made the film to “combat a modern trend towards atheism” and especially now it is really needed. It espouses Christian values and beliefs and the importance of everyone playing their role, to actively take part in the world but also to be truly grateful to God for what Phillip Van Doren Stern very accurately called ‘The Greatest Gift’ which is Life instead. We need to cherish and love the extraordinary blessings that we have been given.
It also reminds us what one person can achieve despite all the odds. Phillip Van Doren Stern could have given up over the years that he was writing the story and the amount of rejection he faced, but he persisted and in the end the dream he was given back in 1938 is truly a gift, that we need to learn from.
For me, the most poignant and telling scene in Its A Wonderful Life is the one below where George Bailey, clearly at the end of his tether asks God to show him the way.