It’s a Wonderful Life: A Road Map to Codependency?

041096E4-959A-4EA0-B25F-B781ED345B22I used to watch the movie It’s a Wonderful Life every year, basking in the warm glow of family and friendship so dramatically illustrated in the Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart as the patient, long-suffering George Bailey, who single-handedly keeps the town of Bedford Falls from becoming the den of miscreants it would have been if he had not been born. 

What a gift, it seemed, to have your own personal angel, Clarence in this movie, show you first hand the value of sacrificing your dreams for the good of others, over and over again, until ultimately, they let you down.

Last year, in 2021, for the first time since grade school, I skipped watching It’s a Wonderful Life. In 2021, I came to the conclusion that George Bailey is a schmuck.

As a side note, Clarence was assigned to George on his crucial night as part of the deal he’d finally earn his wings after being in Heaven for 200 years: “people were beginning to talk.” It’s another of the movie’s perverse twists that having “the faith of a child” wasn’t enough to win Clarence his wings. He had to earn them posthumously. Even death does not end  the obligations of the codependent. 

For my part, in 2021 I realized I’ve taken on unnecessary responsibility to help others, often sacrificing my own needs. For example, several years ago, I gave up the professional opportunity to attend a luncheon with now First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, to discuss cancer support services, instead attending a family celebration the same day. At the time, prioritizing family over a once in a lifetime event, that I’d poured years of my career into, felt like the right thing to do. I made the decision myself.

Today, it’s a decision I regret.

I think there’s a lot of reasons why someone such as myself chooses to meet the needs  of others over their own. Culture, religious upbringing, family dynamics, compassion for others, being a nurse for over thirty years; the mix is different for everyone who finds themself, like George Bailey, sacrificing his or her dreams to meet the needs of others.

It’s human to want to be loved.

I’m not a psychologist, but I think it’s not unwarranted to wonder if George Bailey’s devotion to the “Ol’ Savings and Loan” that he inherited, yet despised, was really penance for the one night he went out dancing at the high school gym, meeting his future wife, Mary, while his father died unexpectedly at home.

 I went to counseling for a bit this year to sort out these thoughts with an objective listener. I told her about not watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and that George Bailey is a schmuck. She glanced away, but not before I saw the suppressed trepidation in her eyes.

How many upsetting things does a therapist hear any given day, week, or month? Yet, my declaration that George Bailey is a schmuck elicited emotion. To me, that says a lot about society’s and families’ traditional expectations upon the individual.

I mean, if everyone in your family and community would disintegrate into a bunch of miscreants because you weren’t there to save them from themselves, whose accountability is that, really?

I’m talking about codependency, people: Boundaries!

But maybe I’m wrong about the George Bailey is a schmuck thing.

Maybe the real meaning of the story of George Bailey, wasn’t told in It’s a Wonderful Life. What if the movie ended where it should have begun? 

 What became of George’s and Mary’s children, Pete, Janie, Tommy and little Zuzu, after the fairy tale ending of It’s a Wonderful Life?

 That fateful Christmas Eve when they witnessed their father face the grim reality of his life as a schmuck. George hadn’t taken the job Potter offered him. If he had, perhaps he would have positively influenced the culture of the company; failing that, he could have taken the $20,000 he made, and started another savings and loan, or finally taken his wife on their forfeited honeymoon. The children saw their father’s anger, saw him return in grace, and the forgiveness their mother gave George so freely. They saw the neighbors donate their meager funds to keep their father from going to jail. Of course, in real life, George would have gone to jail anyway, for failing to account to the OCC* for the misplaced $8,000, presumably never recovered. 

Did Pete, Janie, Tommy and little Zuzu understand that a miracle had occurred, a miracle resulting from the lifetime of good deeds and self-sacrifice by their father, George? Did they grow up to become life-long doers of good deeds too, but perhaps knowing from his example that they needed to build in some boundaries and self-care along the way?

Maybe we do good deeds, and self-sacrifices, not for the purpose of benefitting the people we do it for, but to create a roadmap of service, and generosity to pass down to our children.

What a nice, tidy ending for this post, but I’ve not yet decided if it’s an authentic place to end it. I believe there’s a space somewhere towards the middle where compassion for others and taking care of one’s self are not mutually exclusive. A place allowing people to make their own decisions, and deal with the consequences, while extending mercy and kindness, but not taking on those consequences either. Seeing ourselves as the only solution to fixing the problems of others is a subtle form of arrogance; it doesn’t allow others to grow. 

I do not have this figured out yet. I’m still feeling my way towards balance. But maybe, just maybe, this year I’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life again, with a new perspective.

* Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The OCC is an independent bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

4 Comments

  1. Very thought provoking as It’s a Wonderful LIfe has always been a favorite of mine. I’ve always said, we need more than one life because there are so many directions we can go…none being “the only way”. Have a wonderful holiday!

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    1. It was a bit startling to have my perspective on It’s a Wonderful Life shift so dramatically after all of the years I’ve watched it. I agree with you about having more than one life; it’s so easy to get into a pattern of decision-making and unintentionally set self-imposed limits for ourselves. I’m trying to pay attention to that.

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  2. Not sure if I ever saw the whole movie. Every year , I am changing the channels around this time of the year. Sometimes stopping there for awhile. So – I don’t take your criticism emotionally. I think we all struggle to balance between time and efforts invested in family and community to our personal wants and needs. Human life doesn’t have a perfect solution. We just have to keep our sanity here and now. Your art is beautiful! That can be a point of balance.

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    1. Ayelet, It’s a Wonderful Life was already a very old movie when I began watching it in childhood-I also found it through TV channel hopping. I agree with you that we all struggle with balance in life. I once wrote I felt balance was somewhat static, and therefore impossible to achieve; I perceived life as a juggling act. I wrote that “the trick is to identify which balls in the air make you happy, and which ones make you frantic.” At the time I wrote it, I was making and exhibiting artwork, going to art school, writing & illustrating blog posts for two nursing websites besides this blog, and working full time as an oncology nurse. I was happy. What is balance and how to find it is an individual judgement: I once had a patient who spent all of her short life working, helping others, and the very last thing she said to me before she died was that she was happy about it. It was a profound statement, and helped shape my ideas of a life well lived. For what it’s worth, when resentment towards the expectations and obligations occur, a personal boundary has probably been crossed. This was portrayed in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey finally loses his temper. I encourage you to watch the film in its entirety sometime, because I’d be interested in what you think. I also agree with you that life does not have perfect solutions, and striving for perfection negatively affects our sense of well being. Thank you so much for your kind words about my artwork. Thank you for taking the time to read my post, and comment.

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