It’s a Crucible Life:
Lessons in Significance from a
Christmas Movie Classic
December 16, 2019
The Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life ends on an upbeat, inspirational note fitting for the season it celebrates. George Bailey, the reluctant head of the small building and loan founded by his father and uncle, is saved from ruin by the generosity of the citizens of Bedford Falls. They show up at his house on Christmas Eve to give generously from their modest means to help George make right an accidental and potentially catastrophic $8,000 shortfall.
As George’s brother, Harry, toasts him as “the richest man in town” and the townsfolk sing a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” George opens the copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer left by his guardian angel, Clarence, to read this inscription: “No man is a failure who has friends.”
That message could have read, “No failure is the end of your story if you learn from your crucible experiences and press on to lead a life of significance dedicated to helping others.” That’s right: This beloved holiday movie is a textbook example of the principles of Crucible Leadership in action. George Bailey discovers he is living a wonderful life only after he moves beyond living a crucible life. And there is much we all can learn about moving beyond our own crucibles by studying how George struggles with, and ultimately overcomes, his.
Crucible experiences are rarely one-time events
It’s a Wonderful Life tracks George’s life from 1919 to 1945, from age 12 to roughly 38. Over those nearly three decades, he is hit with five crucible moments:
- He loses the hearing in his left ear while rescuing Harry, who breaks through the ice while the boys and their friends are sledding down a hill next to a river.
- On the eve of George setting off on a European vacation before entering college, his father suffers a stroke and dies.
- Harry, who George gave his college money to when he stayed on to run the building and loan, returns home after graduation with a new wife and a new job offer from his father-in-law. The job offer means Harry won’t assume oversight of the building and loan from George as planned.
- The stock market crashes just as George and his new bride, Mary, are about to embark on their honeymoon. It costs them not only the honeymoon trip but also all but $2 of $2,000 they saved for it. They distribute the other $1,998 to their nervous and needy customers to keep the building and loan, and the town’s faith in it, from collapsing.
- And, in the biggest crucible experience of all, forgetful Uncle Billy misplaces the $8,000 bank deposit, causing a crisis that could send George to prison.
What makes these such painful crucibles to George extends deeper than the surface details, devastating enough in their own right. That’s because George has, from his youngest days, dreamed of being an explorer, “shaking the dust of this crummy little town” off his feet and not just seeing, but conquering, the world. “I want to do something big and important,” he tells his dad when asked if he’d ever consider taking over the building and loan. George dismisses the family enterprise as being in the “business of nickels and dimes” – and yet, each crucible requires him to stay in Bedford Falls (his ear injury even disqualifies him from military service) and keep the building and loan afloat. George never completely stops resenting the life he is left to live or grieving the life he believes his crucibles have stolen from him.
Crucible experiences reveal our design, even when we don’t notice or embrace it at first.
Everyone in Bedford Falls, it seems, recognizes how George Bailey is wired. Like his father, who hung a sign in his office reading, “All you can take with you is what you give away,” George is committed to serving the families that live in his “crummy little town.” Yes, he still longs for the adventures he imagined in his youth, but his day-to-day existence is all about helping the working-class people of Bedford Falls avoid “crawling to Potter.”
Potter is, of course, the town’s greedy, grumpy money man: Henry F. Potter. The scowling tycoon tried to bankrupt the building and loan when George’s dad ran it, and he keeps up his onslaught after George takes the reins. Potter is incensed that the town’s cab drivers and bar owners and police officers are able to buy their own homes because of the sacrificial generosity of the building and loan – rather than pay sky-high rents for his tenement apartments. When he fails to squeeze George out, Potter tries to appeal to the younger man’s well-known taste for “doing something big” – offering him a lucrative job as his personal secretary. George entertains it for a nanosecond – then realizes Potter’s motives and refuses, telling the “bitter old man” that “this town needs this measly little institution” to keep hope of a better life alive for its residents.
Through the thick of the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life, George continues to do the right thing even as he dreams of doing something different. He is living out a vision for a life of significance without realizing it, let alone understanding it. Yes, it’s clear he finds real joy in his family life and doing good deeds for the community. But in his heart there remains a gnawing feeling that he is not doing what he was created to do. It takes the searing fire of his final crucible, caused by Uncle Billy’s mistake, for him to see that he’s already living a wonderful life – even without the exotic vacations to faraway lands. More importantly, he sees that he is living precisely the life he was intended to live, and that he is doing something plenty big.
Crucible experiences point us to a life of significance, especially when others help us see our passions and values in the midst of them.
When Uncle Billy absentmindedly hands the $8,000 daily deposit to Potter, who pockets it in an attempt to force the building and loan out of business and permanently remove George as a rival, George reaches the end of his rope. He behaves like far too many of us do in the most trying times of our lives: He gets mad at his family, berates strangers, drowns his sorrow in self-pity and a few drinks too many. He even contemplates ending it all, reasoning he’s worth more dead than alive. In his last desperate act, acknowledging he is not a praying man, he nonetheless prays to God to send him a sign.
Enter Clarence Odbody, George’s guardian angel, an answer not only to George’s hail-Mary prayer, but also the prayers of friends and family heard as the film opens. One of those initial entreaties to God seeks divine help for George because “He never thinks about himself, Lord. That’s why he’s in trouble.”
George makes an offhand comment to Clarence that everyone would be better off if he had never been born. Clarence seizes on that hastily spoken wish to grant it: showing George what life would be like in Bedford Falls if George Bailey had never been born. With the man “who never thinks about himself” erased, life is bitter and bleak. Bedford Falls isn’t even Bedford Falls anymore, but Pottersville, its quaint town square replaced by sordid characters and sketchy businesses. Harry is dead – having drowned when he fell through the ice in 1919 because his big brother wasn’t there to save him. And Mary is living a scared and lonely life – no husband, no children, no joy. It is, most assuredly, not a wonderful life.
This is George’s epiphany. He sees for the first time that the life he has led has made his community a much better, richer place. He has offered hope and healing to his friends and family. His passion for adventure has not been denied – just realized in a quieter, more meaningful manner. Keeping the building and loan not merely solvent but strong all those years has allowed dozens of his neighbors to pursue grand adventures of their own as homeowners. He has not, as Potter barks, been “trapped into frittering his life away.” He has put the needs of others ahead of his own to achieve life-altering impact. He has learned, in both his head and his heart, the truth that every life lived has the potential to be significant. As Clarence puts it in one of the movie’s most memorable lines: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
The story of what happens to George Bailey after Clarence arrives casts in different, revelatory light what happened to George before Clarence arrived. He learns that the life he wished he’d lived wasn’t the life he was created to live. He understands that taking care of others’ needs rather than chasing his own wants has led to robust reward. He finally sees the same value in himself others have always seen in him.
Such is the power of embracing our crucible experiences and allowing them to lead us into a refining cycle in which we discover our design, craft our vision, and make that vision a reality. When that reality leads us to live a significant life, it is indeed a wonderful life.
- Have you ever felt like a crucible experience has kept you from your life’s purpose?
- As you look at the lessons of your crucible moment and what you learned about yourself in its aftermath, what does it reveal about your gifts and passions?
- What are the qualities others see in you that you have a hard time seeing in yourself?
Gary Schneeberger is the communications director for Crucible Leadership and co-host of the Beyond the Crucible podcast.