I don’t know how many times you have watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I know that it has been many, many times over my young 49 years. It never gets old (at least not for me).
We usually try and watch as many different Christmas shows and movies as we can. We all took our places on couches, chairs, or the floor. I put the disc in and hit play.
I’ve always enjoyed It’s A Wonderful Life… but that was about to change.
As I sat there watching the movie this year with my family (and you must watch it in black and white – none of this colorized stuff), I realized my current life was strangely similar to George Bailey’s. I watched George’s shoulders continue to slump as each scene unfolded and his dreams of travel, “I wish I had a million dollars,” and adventure slowly disappeared.
I watched his stress level go up as the Savings & Loan continued to slip and hang by a thread. One mistake, and it’s all over. I watched the relationships in his family get more strained as the weight of his business and Bedford Falls grew heavier and heavier.
It’s no doubt that James Stewart was an excellent actor in this film. You could see the despair and hopelessness in his eyes with each passing scene. The tension in his voice told you everything that was going on inside his head and heart.
I sat there watching, and then it came rushing to me, “I am George Bailey.”
I finished the rest of the movie, sinking ever deeper into my corner of the couch and realizing I was not enjoying this movie, this year. In fact, when the credits were over, I couldn’t wait to go be by myself.
I left the living room when it was over and went and sat at my desk. I kept saying to myself, “I wish I could have a George Bailey moment.” Whether out loud or in my head, I do not remember. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself with my cries of self pity
You see, this movie has the most classic ending of all movies. George comes back from his time with Clarence the angel. He rushes home and is quickly surrounded by family and friends, overcrowding his living room, and a big basket full of cash to help solve his crisis with the bank adjuster and most importantly, Mr. Potter. They are crying, laughing, singing, and counting cash. That is “the” George Bailey moment.
It took me a few days to get over “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and wishing for my George Bailey moment. Life went on and 2014 was wrapping up to be one of the most difficult years of my life.
A Difficult Year
I am not sure how the difficult year all came together, but it seems like each thing fed off the other and this degenerative disease of despair and hopelessness began to really take root in my life. My shoulders were slumping. My eyes were glassed over and dim. There was tension in my voice in almost everything I spoke. My relationships with friends and family were not necessarily strained, but there wasn’t much communication and certainly not much joy (well maybe they were strained cause Rich was a bit grumpy at times).
I was sinking, and sinking fast. While I was not looking for a bridge to jump off into the icy river below, I was becoming a walking corpse with very little to contribute or offer.
I lost my business of 11 years, or at least what had once been a nice river had now shrunk to the smallest of streams. I worked incessantly in trying to save my business. The only time I had worked harder was when I launched my business back in 2003.
It was past time to get a job. When you’ve worked from home and owned your own business, you realize how “unmarketable” you have become when you begin looking through the various job sites and trying to spice up your resume. My prospects for slipping into the job market seemed remote at best. I had no clue what I was qualified to do.
The business-side of my mother’s passing was still being dealt with. The financial side of taking care of expenses after you lose a family member was something I was completely unprepared for. It has been an emotional drain to say the least.
It wasn’t just these two things. I could do little right. It felt like 95% off my efforts were failures. I’m not afraid of a failure, but I was struggling, and a year of struggling has led to some pretty serious financial problems. I felt like George when one thing after another collapsed in on him, each piling on top to make the weight of the world nearly unbearable.
Christmas had arrived and I had plenty of bills from November that had not been paid. I’m talking about Defcom 1 bills – mortgage, utilities, insurance, car payment. Defcom 2 and 3 level bills would just have to wait. We were now behind on pretty much everything.
We had received a very nice gift card from a friend and we were able to use that to buy some Christmas presents for our family, BUT, you have to understand, I love, love, love to give. This year, I had very little that I could put under the tree for my family. Seriously, very little. I realize that isn’t everything, but let me explain.
I enjoy paying bills (as warped as that may sound). I love providing for my family. You have no idea how much I like to give. I spend months writing down ideas in my Moleskine journal – ideas for each member of my family. It’s filled with simple things and top-secret ideas on ways I want to surprise them on Christmas morning.
I like to hold back a special surprise for the end, and then when it is all over (including the German pickle-prize tradition), I like to give them a scavenger hunt where they can find that one special “top-secret” gift I have been preparing for months. I have the best time putting it all together. I love seeing them run around the house, inside, outside, finding clues and then unwrapping their gift. I don’t just wrap their gifts. I find fancy wrap, bells, ribbons, and put together a package that looks as good on the outside as what is on the inside.
Christmas Eve had arrived, and I was George Bailey. The presents that would be under the tree would not have my signature on them. The presents and gifts that I wanted to give remained as scribbled ideas in my Moleskine journal. No scavenger hunt. No fancy wrap.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just about the money and gifts. I’m not that shallow (at least I hope). But, I didn’t have it. I was failing. I was crushed. I was empty. I was empty-handed. And, the worst part about it all – tomorrow held no hope for things getting better.
I had prayed till there were no words left to offer. I had waited and called out like very few times in my life. Heaven was silent. My bank account was now below zero. My mortgage was unpaid. Life really, really sucked and tomorrow was Christmas. So what.
You may be saying, “Rich, you’ve missed the whole meaning of Christmas.” or “Life is more than money.”
Believe me. I understand this and I am still grateful for Christmas and my faith. I truly am.
Pretty much everything I had coached and encouraged others in all these years I was deaf to. My years of sage advice for others were distant thoughts and I felt alone.
Christmas morning had arrived and I felt defeated, worthless, hopeless, hollow, and unable to shake the feeling that I was leading us to our doom.
Everyone had unwrapped the gifts we had under our tree that our family had sent us, our kids purchased, or we had purchased using the gift card. It was good. I began to realize that my wife and kids were finding joy on that Christmas morning, and it was beginning to find a foothold in me.
Traci passed out our stockings. Everyone’s stocking was a bit slim (especially Traci’s), but mine, for some reason was fat… really fat! My stocking was stuffed to the point of stretching the cloth and threads holding the seams together.
What I held in my hand was the best Christmas present I have ever received… ever!
My George Bailey Moment
I began to pull the contents out of my stocking. In my stocking was a bunch of envelopes… a bunch! I began to look at the names on the envelope – friends from all over my life.
- There were cards from Jr High and High School friends.
- There were a bunch of cards from college friends.
- There were cards from my college faculty and staff that I had learned from and served with and have become friends with.
- There were cards from some of my very best friends from all phases of my life.
- There were cards from people here in Texas that we have gone to church with.
- There were cards from soccer players I had played with and players I had coached.
- There were cards from some special friends we had while in Africa.
- There were cards from people I had worked with while I taught at Dallas Baptist University.
- There were cards from neighbors.
- There were cards from family members.
- There was a card from my wife.
You remember the end of the movie. George receives a book, and inside there is a message:
I was completely caught off guard. It was 100% totally unexpected. I looked up, having looked through the names on the outside of the envelopes in my hand. Traci, Leah, Lauren, and Josh were all staring at me. They knew what I was holding in my lap. They knew how hard this year had been. They wanted this so bad for me.
The tears were flowing down my cheeks. I couldn’t hold back the emotions.
Traci had spent the time, just like Mary Bailey, and gone and rounded up people who were a part of my life – my Facebook friends (I guess Facebook is good for something) and many others not on Facebook. Envelopes had been secretly mailed to the house in my daughter’s name. I was clueless.
I was pretty much a wreck. I opened up one envelope and I quickly realized the purpose of each letter. Each letter was written to bring back a memory, whether a recent memory or a memory that had long since left my consciousness, of something we had done together.
- I received very specific memories of things I did not know that I had done.
- I received very specific recollection of things that I had said to someone in the past.
- I received observations of how I had grown up and and things I overcame.
- There was stuff about the soccer days when I used to be a stud player or coach (ha ha).
- There were so many memories that were shared with me about how I had impacted, touched, said, did, or had been a part of their life.
- There were so many encouraging notes.
- There were stories about fishing.
- There were some nice gifts inside some cards that were very much appreciated.
- I also received Facebook messages from some of my friends.
- The list can go on much longer, but you get the idea.
I was living my George Bailey moment, and I was transported to “the third Heaven.”
I held in my lap the most incredible and extraordinary Christmas present I have ever received.
It took me several days to go through them all because I could not read more than 2 or 3 at a time.
Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.
It’s A Wonderful Life
It had been, and continues to be a difficult time for me financially. Some how, some way, we are still here and making it.
The most important thing is that the gloom, despair, hopelessness, stress and strain are essentially gone. These letters from my friends have given me hope and a new perspective on life.
It’s amazing at how self absorbed you can get when you focus on your troubles. It’s even more amazing how happy, joyful, and peaceful you become when you have gratitude for your family, friends, memories, and how blessed you are in this life.
To all of my friends and family who took the time to write, type, pick out a card, and share with me moments in our friendship or a perspective on my life I didn’t know I had even done – thank you… thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have no idea how you have lifted me up, lifted my head, and blessed my life for the friendship we have shared.
It’s now been about 3 weeks since I opened that stocking on Christmas morning and I am reminded of one more line from the movie:
Clarence: You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.
Why yes, yes I have.