Back in 1997 I wrote a piece about the movie It’s A Wonderful Life for my website, offering a Quantum Age perspective on this holiday classic. As one of our holiday traditions in the USA is to catch a rerun of the movie, I figured I’d take this opportunity to offer a rerun of my essay.
It’s one of the all-time favorite holiday movies in the United States. While much of it dwells in a world that is dark and harsh, it delivers a message of hope. And it’s so straightforward in its intention, the name of the movie is also its message: It’s A Wonderful Life.
The main character in the movie is George Bailey, a lifelong resident of Bedford Falls who becomes so despondent about his life he wishes he had never been born. Miraculously, an angel named Clarence appears and grants him his wish. As a result, George sees what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he hadn’t existed.
And what a different life it is! His younger brother is dead because George wasn’t there to save him, and a naval transport and all on board are lost in a WW II battle because his brother didn’t live to save them. George’s wife Mary is a spinster librarian, instead of the mother of their children. And the charming community of Bedford Falls, in which many have realized the American Dream of a home of their own and a happy family life, has been replaced by Pottersville, a tawdry honky tonk town in which evil Mr. Potter owns everything and people are hardened and bitter.
Realizing that, as Clarence says, he really did have a wonderful life, George begs to be able to live again. And thus, to his joy and amazement, he finds himself back in Bedford Falls, reawakened to a life that’s both demanding and rich.
This movie is clearly not a reflection of the traditional Newtonian world view. That perspective, with its paradigms of clockworks and machines, removes the human element entirely from the landscape. In embracing the detachment of objectivity, it makes people’s lives irrelevant. The overriding message people receive is “You’re not important, the world can manage quite fine without you.”
It’s A Wonderful Life offers a very different message: one person’s life can make a huge difference in the world.
Even though it was released in 1946, this movie seems to be very much in tune with the quantum age. For one thing, a basic premise of both this movie and quantum physics is that life revolves around relationships. Nothing happens in a vacuum; everything is intertwined with, and interacts with, everything else.
Indeed, everything we learn about George Bailey is revealed in the context of his relationships with others. Much of the movie consists of scenes of his life in which he deals with family, friends and customers. Through these images we learn who George is, and what qualities of character he possesses. We learn that he’s honest, conscientious and caring. We learn that he is not afraid to speak his mind when confronted with injustice. And we learn that he puts the highest value on his relationships with those around him.
But relationships do not work in only one direction, and It’s A Wonderful Life is not just about George’s relationships with others. It’s also about their relationships with him. While he may have helped others in very many ways, they helped George as well. On George and Mary’s wedding night, his friends Bert and Ernie help turn their leaky and run-down house into a honeymoon suite. And when George’s uncle loses the bank’s deposits and it looks like the world is crashing around him, his friends and relatives come together to save him and the bank.
Contrast that to the solitary and amoral Mr. Potter, who seems to be an incarnation of the objectivist world view. Eternally detached from the world around him, Potter measures everyone and everything he encounters solely on the basis of what they can do for him. There is no feeling in his world; everything is viewed through the cold lenses of objectivity and materialism.
Clearly, relationships are the spring that nourishes George Bailey’s life. But by themselves, relationships would not seem to explain the dramatic changes that take place when his life is, as it were, “erased from the books.” Is it possible that any one individual could have that profound effect on the world around him or her?
Having lived for many years in a rationalist-objectivist world, our inclination is to devalue the impact an average individual can have on the world around him or her. We generally live with an image of the world as an immense machine, grinding inexorably along without any concern for, or input from, mere mortals like ourselves. With such a mindset, we tend to view the story of George Bailey as a charming fairy tale, heartwarming but unrealistic.
But if we view it from the perspective of chaos theory, George’s story becomes much more believable.
That is because according to chaos theory minute variations in initial circumstances can have profound effects on outcomes. The classic example is known as the Butterfly Effect – the idea that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Texas can eventually effect the formation of a hurricane off the coast of Africa. But an awareness of this dynamic can even be found in folklore:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost;
For want of a rider, the battle was lost;
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!
We experience examples of this everyday. We leave home for work a minute later than usual; we come to an intersection just as a slow driver passes by; we wind up behind this driver for two minutes; they turn down a side street and we soon after come to a traffic light just as it turns red; and things like this continue to happen so that we’re eventually twenty minutes late for work!
While we experience this all of the time, we usually don’t think about it, or consider such dynamics as important. But chaos science has found that this dynamic is present everywhere in the day-to-day world. From a curl of smoke to a massive hurricane, or from an electronic pulse in a computer processor to the world economy, minute variations in initial circumstances can create wildly different outcomes.
In such a world the existence, or lack thereof, of any individual becomes a critical factor in the unfolding of that world. Even further, any variation in the behavior of any individual can have vast and unforeseen repercussions. This is a common theme in modern entertainment. Michael J. Fox goes back in time in Back To The Future, and eventually his current family’s life is radically altered. Characters in Star Trek are frequently reminded of the importance of the Prime Directive, which is to avoid interference with any developing civilization, lest its developemental course be inadvertently altered. Such stories can sound fanciful, but we find them easy to understand intuitively because we experience the same dynamics in our daily lives.
The significance of their message, however, can be unsettling. It’s one thing to view ourselves as insignificant cogs in a vast machine; it’s something quite different to discover we are navigators on an unfamiliar road with no map to guide us. All of a sudden, every choice we make becomes tremendously important.
I believe much of the turmoil people feel in their lives today is a reflection of a dawning recognition of this truth. We are torn today between a well-worn sense of insignificance and futility, and a dawning intuition of great personal responsibility. Common reactions to this intuition are to attempt to resurrect institutions and values from the past in which we can once again lose ourselves, or to attempt to control every minute variable that might have a negative consequence for ourselves, our society, or our planet.
But perhaps we can learn to accept this new awareness, and live our lives like George Bailey: be true to ourselves, consider how we can make our world a better place, and find happiness in the small joys life offers. Perhaps, in living this way, we will come to the same realization that George Bailey came to on a fabled Christmas Eve: it really is a Wonderful Life.
© Dave Higgins, December 1997. All rights reserved.