After a few weeks of temptation, sin, suffering, and redemption, we’re now ready to begin on how to avoid these things in the first place. Namely, by looking beyond ourselves and sacrificing for the good of others. And our lesson in sacrifice comes courtesy of someone who knows the subject very well; George Bailey of Bedford Falls.
Young George is a man ready to conquer the world. He plans to first tour Europe, then go to college to become an engineer and travel the world building new kinds of structures. He wants to, in his words, “do something big! Something important!” Something that doesn’t involve staying in the “crummy little town” of Bedford Falls.
At every stage, however, his dreams of success are frustrated. The sudden death of his father makes him cancel his trip to Europe. The need to save his father and uncle’s “Building and Loan” business causes him to abandon his college plans and send his younger brother, Harry, instead. When Harry returns from college with a wife and a job offer, George decides he can’t ask him to take over the Building and Loan as planned, forcing him to remain indefinitely. Even his Bermuda honeymoon is cancelled when he and his wife, Mary, spontaneously decide to use the money to help the Building and Loan customers during the Great Depression.
At first glance, it might seem like George is simply plagued with bad luck. But it’s not bad luck. At every stage, George chooses his losses. A sacrifice is, by definition, a choice. He doesn’t lose his dreams; he gives them up for a greater good. He didn’t have to give up anything. No one made him give up his trip to Europe. No one made him skip college, or give away his honeymoon money. At every point he could easily have gone the other way, especially when, during the bank-run episode, all he had to do was to keep driving.
What makes George the hero of the picture is that, whenever he is faced with a choice between what he wants and what will help someone else, he always chooses the latter.
Take, for instance, the moment where George’s brother, Harry, returns from college with a wife and a job offer. The understanding between the two brothers was that Harry would go to college while George ran the Building and Loan, then Harry would take over and George could pursue his own dreams. After Harry’s wife, Ruth, let’s slip about the job, Harry quickly assures George that he has no intention of backing out of their arrangement and that he intends to turn the offer down to run the Building and Loan as agreed. George, though, quietly talks with Ruth and discovers that the opportunity really is a good one, one that would bring Harry a good future. So, he has Harry take it and assumes control of the Building and Loan permanently.
There are a couple things to note here. One is that, while George repeatedly sacrifices his most cherished desires for others, he never compromises himself. That is, he never loses his enthusiastic, romantic temperament. After the incident with his honeymoon money, George leads the other Building and Loan employees in celebrating their survival with a mock parade and jokes about “mamma dollar and papa dollar.” Later on, while opening his new housing development, George welcomes the new tenants with a ritualistic gift ceremony.
The other thing to note is that every time George gives up something, either he or someone dear to him gains something in return. When he gives up his college dreams, his brother Harry gets the chance to become a great football star (not to mention the aforementioned wife and career). When he steps aside and allows Harry to take his job, he, George, ends up having a life-changing encounter with his future wife, Mary. After he gave up their honeymoon, Mary and his friends set up an abandoned house as a honeymoon suite. As their friends serenade them from outside, Mary reminds him of a night, years earlier, when they made wishes by throwing rocks at that same house. “This is what I wished for,” she whispers.
So we see, sacrifice does not mean a complete loss, either of oneself or of one’s dreams. Rather, it means a shifting: a redirection. Our energies are channeled towards other purposes. Our dreams and the dreams of others meld, so that when we lose our own dreams we take up another’s and find that they are even better.
Then, of course, comes the great crisis in George’s life: his Uncle Billy loses $5000 of their company’s money, greedy old Mr. Potter is ready to have the law on him, and George, in despair, considers suicide so that his family can have his insurance money.
This crisis, for George at least, is yet another one of his sacrifices. Despite angrily telling Uncle Billy that he wouldn’t take the fall for the old man’s stupid mistake, when the chips are down George does indeed claim responsibility for the accident, knowing full well what that will mean for him.
Then the other shoe drops: Heaven sends Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, and George is given the “great gift” of seeing what the world would be like had he never been born; had he never made those sacrifices.
There is no need to go over the nightmare of “Pottersville” here. Some have complained that the story stacks the deck to far in George’s favor by making him uniquely responsible for the well-being of his community. They miss the point. The point is that what hold the forces of evil at bay is ordinary men, like George, making sacrifices: choosing to give up their own dreams for the sake of others. In so doing, moreover, George doesn’t just save his town from ruin and moral decay, but he personally gains much more than he ever imagined. In the end, finds himself surrounded by family and friends, every single one of them ready and eager to shower him with love and thanks for all he has done for them. All he has given up has rendered him, in the words of his football-star, researcher, war-hero brother, “The richest man in town.”
George’s wonderful life teaches us three main things about sacrifice:
1. Sacrifice is Always a Choice
Every sacrifice George he chose himself. At no point did anyone force him, or did circumstances compel him to do what he does.
2. Sacrifice Never Involves Giving Up One’s Unique Personality
George may give up his dreams of travel and adventure, but he never loses his romantic worldview.
3. Sacrificing what We Think We Want Often Leads to Something Better
In the end, George is a richer, happier, and better man than he ever would have been had he succeeded in his own dreams. He has his family and the love of the whole town, almost all of whose lives he has enriched and made better. Trips to Europe, wealth, education, and fame seem trivial compared to that.
Vive Christus Rex!