There's a George Bailey in each of us (first published in Catholic Herald)
When I was 14 I decided never to hurdle again after falling flat on my face at the county games and moving from 1st to last place within just a few seconds. The fact that I did this whilst looking like a Woody Allen approximation of an athlete, sporting a head-brace and oversized NHS specs just added to the humiliation. I was done! And aside from clearing a few country fences in style when necessary, I haven’t hurdled since.
As Christmas approaches the boardgames come out and though we love to imagine wonderful scenes of family harmony, the chances of an argument erupting, and someone storming off when a loss is in sight is pretty high.
In teaching I have heard more times than I can say ‘I give up, I’m never going to get it’
There is something in all of us that wants to give up when it seems that things are not going our way, when it seems that things are too difficult, that we are just too weak. We don’t want to be ‘also rans’ so we judge that it’s better not to run at all. There is (though false) a sense of freedom in opting out, there is nothing against which we can be held accountable, and we can all rightly claim, as Marlon Brando did, ‘I coulda been a contender’.
It is fear of missing the mark in life that leads so many to pack up the arrows and walk away. Others stay and keep shooting, keep aiming for that bullseye. Who leaves and who stays does not come down to who is good and who is bad, for as Solzhenitsyn said ‘the line separating good and evil [does not run between men] but passes right through every human heart’.
Those who leave are sinners, those who stay are sinners. The only difference is that one acknowledges there is a target to be hit and the other is too afraid to do so. Jesus reminds us not to be afraid.
But ‘of what should we not be afraid’ Pope St. John Paul II asks in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, ‘We should not fear the truth about ourselves’ he responds. One day Peter became aware of the truth about himself and said to Jesus ‘Depart from me lord, for I am a sinful man’ (Lk 5:8). ‘Peter’, Pope JPII tells us, ‘was the only one who was aware of this truth. Every Man has learned it. Every successor to Peter has learned it. I learned it very well. Every one of us is indebted to Peter for what he said on that day, and Christ answered him with ‘Do not be afraid’.
Fear of not measuring up, of not being perfect can stop us from even trying. It can stop Christians from preaching the good news, it can stop non-Christians from hearing it. But there are no ‘also-rans’ with God. It is not about where we place, but that we finish. This is something George Bailey realises at the end of ‘it’s a wonderful life’. His life has not gone as expected, he lives in a measly crumby old town, he has too many noisy kids, he never did travel, the business is going under, the house is draughty, the neighbours have a better car, the bloody knob on the staircase keeps coming off, and maybe it would be better for everyone if he just gave up, packed up his arrows and stopped aiming.
George Bailey represents each one of us; every person who has ever looked at Truth and turned away in shame, from Pontius Pilate to you and me. And to each one of us, Jesus says ‘Do not be afraid’, for He burns our shame and our sin in the fire of His love if we only let Him, if we only stay, if we only cry out as Jimmy Stewart did running through the streets of Bedford Falls ‘I wanna live, I wanna live’. Nothing had materially changed, he still lived in the same town, with the same number of noisy kids, the same crappy car and the same broken staircase, he had still made the same mistakes, hurt the same people, resented the same life, but it was all transformed by a realisation that even in the pain, the hurt, the mistakes, the disappointments there was gift, love, hope, joy and forgiveness. ‘Behold’ says Christ, ‘I make all things new’. Only Christ who loves each one of us with a perfect love can take all the anguish in our hearts, all the regrets, all the wrong turns, all the failures and disappointments and hold us tight to Himself saying, ‘I will give you rest’ (mt 11:28) Some curse God for putting such sadness into beauty, as Christians this Christmas and every day we can join George Bailey and thank God for putting such beauty into sadness.