Let Me Live Again
George Bailey and the soul of a man.
Note: The following essay is published today at Mere Orthodoxy. I’m thankful for Jake Meador’s allowing me to cross-post it simultaneously for my newsletter readers.
It's a Wonderful Life released in the Christmas season of 1946, just a year after the unconditional surrender of Japan and as millions of American men and families were just starting to pick up the pieces of their lives. Had it all been worth it? The same year, William Wyler rolled out The Best Years of Our Lives, which was explicitly about veterans finding hope after the scars of war (the movie would win Best Picture). It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, was about a man whom the war passed by. George Bailey is deaf in one ear, ineligible to sacrifice himself for his country, because as a boy he sacrificed himself in a frozen river for his brother. It wasn’t just soldiers returning from the front who had to find a path forward; it was those like George who had been stuck at home, unsure who they were if they weren’t heroes.
It’s a film that understands men, and one of the only holiday movies I know that year over year evokes strong emotion in me, my Dad, and many other men I know. This is not to say that women don’t love it, too. But it seems to me that most women resonate with the movie at a different level. They cry at George’s repaired relationship with his wife and kids. Men shed tears because of George’s repaired relationship with himself. “You’ve been given a great gift,” the angel Clarence tells him. “A chance to see what the world would be like without you.” That sentence means something to men that it simply does not mean to women. To be a man is to live with a resilient fear that your life simply does not matter. The best that most men can manage is to live well enough to suppress the fear about half of the time. Many men never get to this point.
The CDC reports that men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide. In 2021, about 60,000 men overdosed with an opioid, compared to about 20,000 women. That American men are facing a particular crisis is no longer an ideological or contrarian view, but the consensus among even elites. Yet knowledge does not equal wisdom. Part of the reason that “crisis of masculinity” discourse flourishes is that there does not seem to be much genuine insight into it. Statistics like the ones above are good fodder for journalists, authors, and activists, but they do not reveal the soul.
Earlier this year one writer raised the question of whether young men need purpose or respect more in order to flourishc. Regardless of how you feel about his answer (the author said purpose), this is a strange dichotomy. Films and stories that resonate deeply with men, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Gladiator, or Master and Commander, do not assume it is possible to separate respect from purpose. All three of these films conclude not only with their hero having achieved a great goal in his life’s mission, but with the accomplishment of that goal rebounding in the respect of those around them. Note carefully that respect does not mean “love” or even “admiration.” The respect that matters most to men is instead a recognition, even small, that they are somebody whose presence and labor matter.
Both purpose and respect lay near the center of a man’s sense of self. This is why, nearly eighty years after it released, It’s a Wonderful Life still resonates as a parable of masculine redemption. It is a unique story, partly because it is so ordinary. There is no scene or subplot in the film that is unrealistic for an everyday working-class guy. Men love John Wayne and Maximus, but we know we’ll never be them. George Bailey is different. George Bailey looks like us—and never more than when he is at the brink of darkness.
George’s great enemy is failure. His story revolves around three key encounters with the town’s Ebenezer Scrooge stand-in, Mr. Potter. The first encounter happens right after George’s father dies and Potter is about to convince the Bailey Building and Loan’s board of directors to close up shop. After George delivers a passionate but impromptu speech (directed to Potter), the board agrees to keep the building and loan open only if George forgoes college and succeeds his father. The second encounter happens midway when Potter tries to hire George away from the Building and Loan with a lucrative offer. Despite his family’s poverty, George declines the offer on principle. The third encounter is the most dramatic: covering for his incompetent uncle, George tells Potter that he (George) has “misplaced” a major bank deposit and is in desperate need of a loan. This moment represents the bottom of George’s humiliation, as he becomes completely vulnerable to his arch nemesis in a last-ditch attempt to save his family.
George doesn’t want to ask Potter for the loan because he knows what Potter will say. Indeed, Potter ends up saying exactly that: “You used to be so cocky,” he sneers at George. “What are you but a warped, frustrated young man.” At this point George is not only defeated, he is humiliated, the seeming folly of his entire life laid bare before the town millionaire he proclaimed he would never need. At each turn George has protected something or somebody other than himself. In his most desperate hour, he stands alone on a bridge above a frigid river, wielding only a life insurance policy, and contemplating one final act of self-sacrifice.
Why do healthy men with families that love them commit suicide? Earlier this year, I received news that an acquaintance’s husband had hanged himself in their home while their son slept. As far as I know, there was no terminal diagnosis, no impending disaster—nothing that might pass for what we might coldly call a “reason.” Such cases are increasing yearly. In the past couple of years friends have told me of their struggles, past and present, with suicidal ideations. Whatever the myriad reasons for these trends, there seem to be common threads. So many men, even ones with accomplishments to admire, spend their waking hours fending off a voice in their head whispering that their life, their work, their very identity, counts for nothing. Self-help techniques do not suffice. There is something elemental going on.
George stands on the bridge not just because he needs an insurance payout, and not just because he wants to avoid prison. In the movie’s quaint opening, heavenly beings relay the news that George is considering suicide. One angel asks, “Is he sick?” “No, worse. He’s discouraged,” comes the answer. On the bridge, George sees no reason to his life, nothing on which to stand and justify his existence. His dreams, his ambitions, his sense of worth—all have been sacrificed for the good of a two-mule town. The missing money means even his family is in jeopardy.
George does not need greeting-card sentiment about self-esteem, affirmation, or “self-care.” George’s struggle is biblical. He is fighting off visions of what Ecclesiastes calls the “vanity” or “vaporousness” of life. “For the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God” (Ecc. 2:26). To work, to strain, to sweat and strive and cry, only to finally have nothing to show for it—this is a curse. God’s blessing does not excuse from labor (as the rest of the wisdom literature makes very clear), but it does protect the wise man from the shame of dis-ownership.
To have nothing, no vine or fig tree, to call one’s own, is the most fundamentally masculine meaning of despair. With his last breath, Samson did not wish for a rescue, but for his death to mean something: “Let me die with the Philistines.” Purpose and respect are possible even when naked and blind before the enemy. In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene’s whiskey priest learns to hate something more than death and pain: uselessness. The priest “was not at the moment afraid of damnation—even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all.” Women, of course, desire to be useful too. But there is a kind of despair at being dispossessed of purpose that lurks in the corner of a man’s soul. Take everything a man possesses, but leave him his work and the possibility to own that work in front of others, and he may endure. Give a man every luxury good, but convince him that none of it really means anything (and doesn’t say anything about him), and he probably won’t.
The Bailey family understands the connection between a man’s purpose and sense of ownership. In an early but crucial scene between George and his father Peter, the elder Bailey asks George (scheduled to leave for college soon) if he would consider coming back to run the family Building and Loan. George, visibly uncomfortable, remarks that he would “bust” if couldn’t spend his life doing “something important.” Peter responds that the Building and Loan is important. “It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace. We’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.” Peter dies later that very evening; these last words are George’s great inheritance. Later, George will see a vision of what would have been had the Building and Loan closed: Bedford Falls would have been displaced by Pottersville, a poverty-riddled, vice-infested city that chews up and spits out George’s friends (in this vision of alternate reality, Violet Bick is a showgirl, Ernie the cab driver is divorced, and George’s beloved Mary is a fragile spinster).
There may be some sentimental “small town USA” nostalgia that makes us root for Bedford Falls, but the dissipation, dysfunction, and loneliness of Pottersville are recognizable to the vast majority of American men. What should we think about the fact that, to terrify George Bailey at the prospect of never having lived, God shows him a world that strongly resembles the world we live in? Here we are close to the soul of the so-called “crisis of masculinity.” Pottersville is that crisis. Pottersville represents the world as it is propped up by mammon, stripping men (and women) of the dignity of even decent housing, the glitz and the glamor masking profound alienation at every turn.
It is impossible to understand what’s going on with American men without paying attention to the world they inhabit. It is a world where meaningless work is governed by soulless human resources departments. It is a world where most men live increasingly automated lives, unable and then unwilling to use their hands. It is a world of Pottersville shacks, punctuated by visits to Pottersville establishments—or, more likely, virtual immersion in Pottersville amusements. Purpose and respect, tethered as they are to a sense of ownership and mission, elude men who are shut out of owning or achieving anything. The emerging American man possesses nothing, creates nothing, for nobody in particular. “I’m worth more dead than alive,” George grieves, speaking for many.
Pottersville is, of course, a glimpse at what happens when good men aren’t around. It is a symptom. But it is also a disease. It is not a denial of personal moral agency to observe that good men are often poured into by fathers. George does not intuitively feel the value of a place like Bedford Falls. His father does. George does not love Bedford Falls, but he loves his father. There is no Building and Loan without Peter Bailey, but more to the point, there is no George Bailey either.
A world in which fathers are disappearing—deadbeat Dads, yes, but also millions of men who refuse to become fathers at all—is a world that is losing the most ancient and immovable source of masculine identity. In the Scriptures, the blessing bestowed on a son by a father is much more than well-wishes or even a prediction. To be blessed by one’s father was to receive a prophetic inheritance: an establishment of who you are, the role you will play, and the overarching purpose of your life. The fact that contemporary society no longer ties socioeconomic outlooks with father-son blessing does not negate the spiritual significance of what a father transmits to his son. A father gives (consciously or not) to his son an irreplaceable part of who he is—for good and bad. Suggesting that fathers yield a mysterious but real power over the future lives of their sons sounds unacceptably conformist and a denial of individualism, but a quick glance into the lives of men who never knew their fathers—or their children—confirms it. In no small part, Pottersville exists because fathers do not.
The final scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are beloved. George, with suddenly no identity, no hometown, and no family, repents of his despair. He would rather live impoverished than anonymous. “I don’t care what happens to me,” he calls out, on the very same bridge from earlier. “I want to live again.” What has brought George back? Love. He had the burden of failure lifted off him by having the joy of life taken away as well. It is important that George does not come back to his senses because he has now been filled with a high opinion of himself. Instead, he realizes that there is something greater than himself at all.
Nearly all of mainstream coverage of the crisis of masculinity ends up commending some kind psycho-political technique that will adapt men for the times. One says society must teach men to renounce toxic masculinity. Another insists that men must be trained how to be more emotionally intelligent in an evolved workplace. Still others focus on increasing employment, or cutting obesity, or removing the stigmas from sexual machismo and alpha male aesthetic. All of these strategies, whatever their merits, have one thing in common: they push a man’s gaze inward. They are invitations for men to look at themselves one more time, to make their economic or ideological or sexual success the measure of their life.
But that life is never enough. It is never enough because there will always be one more road not taken, one more sacrifice that appears to go unheeded, one more year of obscurity while life seems to pass you by. Men build something when they are something, and they are something when they receive something. The ghost of insignificance haunts us because we are not created for it. Irrelevance is an enemy. We dread it because it is death and we are made for life.
The gospel is, paradoxically, a rebuke to ambition for notoriety, and yet an assurance that we are not unknown. In what might be considered history’s first Christmas carol, Mary sang that the Father “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” In other words, there are no Pottersvilles in the kingdom of Christ. But he has not left the poor to fend for themselves; rather, “he has filled the hungry with good things.” This is the desire of every man’s soul: to be filled, and to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that these are good things to be filled up with. A fullness that satisfies and spills over, nourishing wives and children and governments and industries and churches and science and art and every corner of creation. A fullness that not even financial ruin can dry up—this, and only this, can awaken a despairing man’s heart once again.
Pay attention to George Bailey’s prayer on the bridge. While the vision of Pottersville remains, it is not snowing. When Bedford Falls returns, the snow starts to fall once again. What comes out of George’s mouth the exact moment he is brought back from death to life? “Please God, let me live again.”
Digital Liturgies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.