Becoming George Bailey: My Complex, Evolving Relationship with “It’s a Wonderful Life”

I had dreams, like every kid has dreams. I dreamed I would travel the world, become an astronomer, maybe even become an astronaut, and go to the moon. I cut out articles and made scrapbooks about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I bought books about astronomy and treasured the few times I actually made it to the Hayden Planetarium in New York.

Other dreams followed: Journalist. Novelist. Actor.

The thing is, I didn’t really want to be a doctor. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but that was my older brother’s dream. When we were kids, our mom even made my brother a white terrycloth smock that looked like a doctor’s white coat for him to wear in the summer by our above ground 3x12 foot pool. He ended up becoming a lawyer.

It wasn’t really till high school that I started thinking about becoming a doctor and that was largely at the urging of my guidance counselor. I was smart. I did well all the way through school in everything: Science, Math, History, Geography, English, German, pretty much every class except Gym. My counselor pointed out that perhaps I should at least think about becoming a doctor because it would employ all of my talents.

And it did kind of make sense. After all, if I followed a pre-med curriculum in college, I would be required to take a wide variety of courses, not just Science and Math, but Humanities. It really wasn’t until my senior year of college that I made my decision to go into this profession. And even then, it was more a kind of a sensible, practical thing to do.

After all, so many professions in the arts and humanities are dependent not just on talent but on dumb luck. Being in the right place at the right time. I’d run into so many talented people who wanted to do some of these same things that I had been dreaming about, but they had not broken through. I really do deeply admire people who go into the arts and follow their passion because so frequently their gifts are not appreciated and certainly not remunerated.

Even though I grew up in the 1960s, my parents, who grew up during the Great Depression and never really got over it, instilled in me the need for security in whatever profession I entered. As such, one of the things that was not in my toolbox was the ability to live with uncertainty. If I became a doctor, I reasoned, I would always be able to find a job.

So I did it. I graduated from medical school in 1980 and moved to New York to do my residency in pediatrics.

Still, as much as I appreciated the fact that I would always be able to earn a paycheck, I cannot remember a time in medical school when I did not feel stressed. And residency was certainly no less of an ordeal. While there were moments of grace, I frequently felt put upon, overworked, and unappreciated. These were the times when residents would work 120 of the possible 168 hours in a week, often including unbroken stretches of 36 hours.

After I graduated from my pediatrics residency, the stresses changed, but they certainly did not decrease. As an attending physician, first as the only pediatrician in a small town in South Carolina for two years and then working in East Saint Louis, Illinois, I seemed to be on call all the time, and now I there was no one to fall back on. I was the one responsible for making the decisions.

Day after day, month after month, year after year, I found myself taking care of other people and not taking care of myself. People would come to my office with their problems, I would do what I could to help, and I would send them off to have a good life, while I would be going home to what seemed no life of my own. More than I like to remember, there were long stretches of fatigue, depression, anger, depletion, and resentment.

I don’t exactly remember when, but sometime in there, I saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time. The film, made in 1946, entered the public domain because of a clerical error in the mid 1970s. As such, television stations around the country showed it in heavy rotation during the Holiday season without having to pay royalties.

So whatever Christmas season I first saw “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I know it was during a period of my life where I was consumed by my work, and I didn’t make much of an impression on me. I suppose I thought of it as a nice, old-timey movie, but I was probably too distracted by just getting through the day and the night and the weekend and the phone calls and the patients to think much more about it.

Over the years, though, as I paid more attention to it, I began to have a problem with it. This was the story of a man who gave up dream after dream after dream to take care of other people, and what good did it do him? Sure, he got married and had kids, and it was sweet, and the whole community thought he was a great guy and helped him out at the last minute, but he never got to live those dreams that had sustained him, propelled him, early in life.

It felt to me like a bunch of rich Hollywood people were telling those of us out here in the sticks that we should just be satisfied with whatever crumbs we got. I mean here was Jimmy Stewart, one of the most famous and celebrated actors of all time, playing this guy who, by any measure, was a chump. I felt its message of, sit down, shut up, and be satisfied with what you got, was something I did not need to hear. I was getting enough of that elsewhere in my life.

Beyond that, I was seeing friends of mine, other young gay men full of life and dreams, getting sick and dying. And no Clarence-trying-to-get-his-wings was helping us out there.

I began to resent “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and for a quite a few years after that, I let go of it.

And life, i.e, what happens while you’re making other plans, went on.

As I’ve said, medicine was not my passion. It was a suggestion, a default, something that checked off all the boxes of the things that I needed in my life to feel secure. It was my Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. Yet as time had passed, I began to realize that this profession had given me a life beyond what Teenage-Me could have imagined. I eventually, slowly, painfully began to love myself and the life I had lived.

Including the anger, the compromises, the pettiness, the disappointments, and the resentments.

When I finally went back to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I realized that gotten so much of it so wrong. George Bailey is no plaster saint. He feels perfectly free to express his feelings when he has to take over the Building and Loan rather than traveling to South America or going to college. When he interrupts Freddy talking to Mary at the high school dance and Freddy protests, George says, rather snarkily, “Oh, why don’t you stop annoying people.” When he thinks he’s going to go to jail because his Uncle Billy lost $8000, he fiercely lashes out at him, his kids, even the husband of his daughter’s teacher.

Yet there are other times where he does choose to accept that there are things that he needs to do for his family and community without complaining, though not without recognizing the price he will have to pay. For example, when his brother Harry, who is supposed to take over the Building and Loan, returns from school having married without telling George while also implicitly accepting a job offer from his father-in-law, Jimmy Stewart takes as moment as Harry, who has just gotten off the train with his bride, has walked down the platform to talk to other friends. The camera stays on Stewart who, in the space of a few seconds and without a word, expresses clearly and subtly in both face and body, his anger, his disappointment, his resentment, and finally his acceptance as he puts on a happy face to join his brother and group of friends to congratulate Harry. How well I know those few seconds of accepting disappointment and choosing to move through it.

There’s another moment, again wordless, for Stewart when he has just left his mother’s house, or at least the house of the woman who should have been his mother, as Clarence is showing him what the world would be like if he had never been born. In darkness, he rushes toward the street his eyes wide with fear. He stops right in front of the camera and looks to his right struggling to take it all in. As Clarence says, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Stewart slowly turns his ravaged face to stare directly into the camera and at the audience.

Now when I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I wonder what it must have been like to sit in a movie theater barely a year after the existential crisis of World War Two, to have a vision of what it would be like never to exist. Jimmy Stewart reportedly suffered from shell shock or what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD after returning from serving as a pilot in Europe during the War. This was his first film after coming back. He was apparently questioning the superficiality of Hollywood and acting in general, and Lionel Barrymore who plays Mr. Potter said to him, “So, are you saying it’s more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?” That seems to have moved Stewart, helping him accept that he was playing an important role just by doing his job.

As I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” again this year on the 75th anniversary of its release, I wept. A dozen Kleenexes or more met their demise at my hands and nose during the course of this film. Each year when I watch it, I identify more deeply with George’s anger, his disappointment, his resentment, and ultimately his need to let go of all that to put forth kindness and accept love. Because I have been incredibly lucky. Like George, who kept the Building and Loan going because he was supposed to do it, and he ended up changing so many lives for the better, I have had occasional glimpses of what life would have been like without me.

Because word has gotten out that I am contemplating retirement, I have had a lot of long-term families, moms and dads and grandparents, ask me in the office, “Are you really going to retire?” When I say, “Yes, I am, in about a year or two,” so many people have responded with some version of, “Dr. Haller, I don’t know what we would have done without you!”

I’ve said before in this space, in another story, how my mom was rather frugal with compliments because she didn’t want us kids to “get a big head.” So when I write stuff like this, I’m hoping my mom can forgive me. Because it really isn’t so much about having a big head. It’s about realizing that every person makes a difference. I am just lucky enough to have been in a position where people will tell me that on occasion.

And so really (and mom this is for you) I’m not saying this out of conceit. I guess it’s just that I realized that if I am George Bailey, so are we all. Our presence on this planet — each and every one of us — makes a difference. And like George, it’s good to own everything we feel, even the messy stuff, and ultimately, like him, if we choose to channel that into kindness, we all can be the richest person in town.

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Ken Haller

Pediatrician, Educator, Singer, Writer, Advocate, Actor, Improviser. Views are my own, not those of any institution where I’m employed.