“It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.” —Tom Brokaw
In the climactic moment of Frank Capra’s cinematic masterpiece, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Harry Bailey character proposes a toast: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
And despite having seen the thing a zillion times, despite having honed a more than cursory degree of professional cynicism, and despite having somehow attained the ripe old age of 66, there’s a tear that sneaks into my eye every time that line is spoken in that movie.
And I never could really figure out why until at some point in the last third of those rapidly mounting years.
Not unlike far too many of my fellow human beings, I spent way too much time bemoaning some of the trappings absent from my station in life: Let’s see, I wasn’t important enough; I never could ever catch that “big” break; I never seemed to have enough money to secure all the things that were important at various times to me or my family.
“Bitching,” I believe, is the colloquial term, and that practice is usually an audible product of the larger and even less elevated human endeavor known as feeling sorry for one’s self.
And that is not unlike the otherwise admirable character named George Bailey at a critical point in the plot line of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
A fictional character made manifest by the superb acting of the late, great Jimmy Stewart, George Bailey so represents classic Americana as to have stepped out of any one of a hundred Norman Rockwell paintings.
A good and decent fellow, he has made sacrifices, made a few mistakes, reared a family and plied his publicly beneficial, but less than personally profitable or glamorous trade, running the family building and loan in Smalltown, U.S.A.
Every time it looks like he is about to get ahead, realize his dreams, something happens. Another sacrifice needed to be made. Poor fellow couldn’t ever grab that gold ring.
Everybody knows (and shame on you, if you don’t) the rest of the story. Through no fault of his own, the day before Christmas, George’s world falls apart. He just can’t take it anymore and having realized he was “worth more dead than alive,” George decides to end it all.
Providence intervenes, and he is allowed to see what life in his little corner of the planet would have been like without him.
He finds out pretty melodramatically that he has made far more of a difference than he ever imagined. He finds out how many friends he has made.
He is reminded of a Sunday School-vintage lesson that virtually all of us can recite, but a good many of us never quite come to believe—that real wealth can never be measured in dollars and cents or credit lines.
And that lesson George Bailey is forced to re-learn is the same one I did and it is this: A man’s life can best be judged in terms of his friends, and sometimes within one of those strange little twists inherent to this existence of ours, his enemies.
Both my pal George Bailey and I are, after all’s said and done, very fortunate individuals. George Bailey and I have both been most blessed.
Of course, mine has been in real life.
Not only do I have friends, Lord knows, I have good friends and lots of them. Some are personal, some are professional. Some are both. Some are close confidants with whom secrets are mutually shared. Some have helped me in oh, so many ways.
Some have used the kinds of words and phrases—things like “respect” and “honor” and “making a difference” in application to me that for far too long I really rather miserably failed to fully appreciate. There are no proper entries for such things in a bank book or financial statement.
Some have merely gone out of their way to say what they likely undervalue: That they really liked my column or my paper’s editorial or that something I said or wrote made them think.
I treasure them all. As I should.
I guess my buddy George and I were just slow learners. I guess we spent too long dwelling upon what wasn’t, to appreciate what was at hand. I guess it is actually a tossup between George Bailey and me as to which of us is really “the richest man in town”—be it the mythical Bedford Falls or the all too real Rolling Fork.
And the moment I realized, that was the moment I came to understand why a single line in one old movie could make me cry all these years.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.