“It’s A Wonderful Life” has been my favorite movie since I first watched it back in the seventies. My mother introduced it to me, one Christmas, and I was just old enough to comprehend the meaning of the film. I made up my mind after watching it that first time, that George Bailey was my hero, and I was going to be just like him.
My desire to be “George” was not because I wanted a climactic moment when everyone realized how great I was and gathered round to sing “Auld Lang Syne” to me. Rather, what I realized watching the movie was you create stronger friendships and relationships if you’re willing to sacrifice you own happiness for others. Was this a valid realization? In modern society, not by a long shot; but when I was growing up, it most certainly seemed right. And for a boy growing up in a physically and emotionally abusive home, and being relocated every few years to a new town, developing friendships and long-lasting relationships was the ultimate goal. And so it began, a life of constant sacrifice, hard-work, and self-deprecation as I tried to find a community where I belonged.
In 1995, I though I had found that when I relocated to Indiana with my company, and met the woman I would marry. However, my mother committed suicide shortly after I met my future wife, and in so doing set loose the truth about her mental illness that my family had kept from me my whole life. Apparently my grandparents had abused her as a child, and she was just continuing the cycle. I suddenly felt a wave of guilt flood over me, because I took the job transfer to get away from her abusiveness, only to realize after her death that I was the anchor holding her together. My one act of protecting myself led to my mother’s death; or so that’s how I perceived it at the time. This perception would carry with me for the next five years, during my marriage, dragging me into an addiction I couldn’t recognize. I became a workaholic. Not to be confused with those people who claim to be workaholics as they attempt to garner sympathy, and martyrdom from everyone around them. I’m talking about a real addiction. I would get physically sick if I wasn’t at work, and working hard. I never took days off, let alone a vacation. I would 12-14 hour days, and frequently found myself working 36 hour shifts until I couldn’t go on anymore, and my body crashed. As a result of this addiction, my wife gave up and sought comfort outside the marriage. We were divorced after five years.
This sent me spiraling into a further depression, because I realized that I had failed again to live up to the standards of being “George”. I immediately rebounded into a relationship with a friend that lasted a year, before she too left me. The depression continued to get worse. In the next year after that, I would be laid off from the company that I spent 15 years with, find out I couldn’t father a child, and have three heart ‘episodes’ one of which almost killed me. I hit bottom, and one weekend while I was on leave to recover from an ‘episode’ I took the gun out of my nightstand drawer, and stared at it.
Obviously, I’m still here . . . the gun isn’t.
I got help, but it didn’t exactly help. I still struggle with depression everyday, and most days, it wins. But I persevere. These days I work at an hourly job that pays me half of what my salary was just five years ago, I’m overweight, alone, and directionless. This past year, I found myself dealing with six deaths of friends and family, two of which were suicides. And the daily struggles to go on have gotten harder.
With all of this, I had long since abandoned over the last decade the notion of being “George-like”. I haven’t even watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” in about five years. I had resigned myself to just existing, and trying to maintain the few friendships I had left, so that I could kid myself into thinking that I wasn’t alone.
I had told one of these friends that I was going to buy myself a Christmas present for the first time in years. I couldn’t really afford it, but I was going to do it anyway. The Kindle Fire looked pretty sweet to me, and I had wanted a Kindle for so long so that I could start reading again. It wasn’t so much about owning a cool gadget, as much as it was giving myself the permission to do something for me. Buying something for myself, that was a luxury and not a necessity, came to represent or symbolize a change. A step forward. For the first time, in a long time, I wanted to do something for myself.
Two weeks ago I found myself in the hospital ER again for blood pressure/heart related issues. All’s fine now, but the impending medical bill is going to be huge. Additionally the car started acting up, and that’s going to need repaired. So I casually mentioned to this same friend during a conversation that the Fire might have to be an Easter present, as I couldn’t afford it this year, our book-sharing would have to wait.
Maybe it was the sadness in my voice that I was being hit with more roadblocks, or maybe it was the vacancy in me eyes that she saw indicating that I was close to giving up again. I’m not sure. What I do know, is that last week we had a work Christmas party, and I was surprised with a Kindle Fire, paid for by all of my co-workers who had chipped in to buy it. I just sat there staring at it, as the realization that everyone that I worked with, was watching and waiting for me to open this gift, and my eyes started to tear up. It was humbling moment, and an eye-opening one, as I now knew that people did notice me, and that when I was out of sight, I wasn’t always out of mind.
This Christmas weekend, I went home to Pittsburgh to do some giving and remembering of those that passed this past year. As we made the rounds from house to house, the emotions were overwhelming. I spent the weekend with some friends, and cooked most of the Christmas dinner for them, to thank them for putting me up for the weekend. We finished out the night by watching the colorized Blu-ray version of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. As the final scene unfolded, I felt the tears welling up. I realized that what had happened to me at the Christmas party last week, was in practice the same thing that happened to George Bailey. He was in trouble, and his family, friends, and co-workers whose lives he had been apart of, came to his aid. Last week, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to survive the year. I’d had enough, and it was getting to hard to get up every morning. I had even originally planned to skip the party, because I wasn’t sure I could put on my face-the-world face. But I forced myself, or maybe God forced me, I’m not sure.
What I am sure about, is that through this simple act of compassion and generosity, my friends/co-workers unknowingly gave me reason to survive the year. I suddenly felt noticed, like I mattered, and was appreciated. These are important things. And in a tiny way, I now know how George Bailey must have felt when every person who’s life he touched came to his aid. This was my “George Bailey Moment”, and I’m grateful for it.
Do you know someone who needs a “George Bailey Moment”?