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George Bailey, Meet Thomas Merton

December 12, 2019


George Bailey, the hero of It’s a Wonderful Life, is not a simple, good-natured cornpone from upstate New York; he is a man carrying a real bitterness within, that shows itself in little ways.

A man who has had to cast aside every dream in order to do “the right thing,” the thrill-seeking Bailey is — thanks to an old injury — denied even dubious adventure of soldiering during World War II. Watch him spit in disdain at himself and his situation, after he has responsibly handled a blackout drill in his neighborhood.

When the big man from the small town comes beeping by in a slick, shiny car and an even shinier woman, see George Bailey’s lip curl, not because his wife is wearing a baseball cap and sitting in his old clunker, but because she is so clearly content with the cap, and the clunker, and with trapped old George, who always wanted so much more. He adores his wife; he wants what she wants, but cannot understand why she doesn’t want more.

Watch him kick the car door.

George Bailey, who tries to be a good man, loves much. He hates much, too.

Where there is great goodness, there is always equal potential for badness, and it is a testament to James Stewart’s talent, (and Frank Capra’s direction), that we barely notice Bailey’s flaws for all his good points.

Subconsciously, I think we see the man in full — good and bad, light and dark — and recognize ourselves in him. No wonder we want to sympathize; no wonder we want him to win. He is the personification of all of our demons and better angels.

George Bailey came to mind, recently after reading this, from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us…

This Advent, I keep thinking about all of the intention that resides in creation, and how pertinent the whole notion of intentionality is to our relationship with God, and God’s with us. All of our actions, whether our sins or our best moments, after all, will be judged by the intentions in which our actions are rooted – in “the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will …” – in what we meant to do, versus what we actually did.

In service to what is true, intention matters. Sometimes we think we are well-intended, yet do unhelpful things. Sometimes we do good things, but with such selfish and bitter hearts that we just know it can’t count toward our spiritual balance.

This duality is what we see going on, frequently, in the heart of George Bailey. His every “yes” is undercut by his desire to say “no” – to just get away from the “crummy little town” of Bedford Falls. “I don’t want to get married – ever,” he tells a sobbing Mary Hatch. “I want to do what I want to do.”

He actually does want to marry Mary. He actually does want to build low-cost housing for the less-advantaged, but he fights with his own ambitions — to see the world, to embrace the world and live fully in the world — every step of the way. As a result, whatever satisfaction he takes from his accomplishments seem meager to him; he internalizes none of the joy he helps bring to others, thereby permitting his dark side to surface strong when things go wrong.

Eventually, in his hour of true need, George Bailey finds himself rescued by the very town-folk he had once been so eager to leave behind. All of the good he had done, even when he hadn’t wanted to do it, came back to him in abundance – we might call it a “full measure… and running over.” (Luke6:38)

What are we seeing in those last few minutes of the film – Justice, or Mercy? What does George Bailey’s eleventh-hour rescue tell us about intention, and how it works with or against heaven?

Our simple understanding tells us that since Bailey didn’t really want to do the good things he did, those actions should weigh lightly on the scales of justice, while — since he so frequently seemed to be willfully repressing his furious instincts — his darker moments unleashed should weigh heavily, because on some level he really wanted to blast at Mary, and lash out a hapless Uncle Charlie, and bellow at Zsu-Zsu’s concerned teacher.

But… intention matters, and at bottom, even when he is raging, even when he is resenting staying in Bedford Falls while he brother heads toward a fine career, George Bailey still  wants to do the right thing, as he is able to see it.  At the depths of his stillpoint of nothingness, then, the place “untouched by sin and by illusion” George Bailey consistently recognizes the greater good he can render to others, and serves it over his own desires.

And that is not just Christlike behavior – it’s not just a man encountering Gethsemane again and again through the course of his life, as we do, and then consenting to do what is asked – it is Christlike intention. Thus it weighs as much as all Creation, in his spiritual balance. Pondering that impacts everything we understand about human caprice, our choices, intentions, and how we perceive both Justice and Mercy so differently than does heaven.

None of us truly know what “yes” or what “no” intention resides within another at their core – that “little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty” where the Glory of God still meets us, and orients our intentions beyond superficial understanding. We only know what we know, and our knowledge, as Saint Paul wrote, is incomplete. And so judgement is best left to the Unknowable One who sees the complex, multi-layered totality of each of us, down our deepest, most unknowable selves, and comprehends our truest intentions as he metes out justice and also mercy.

In the meantime, we should perhaps try to be more mindful of our own intentions, for good and for ill, and consider the example of George Bailey, who didn’t think he actually wanted to do any of the good things he did. He just wanted to do right by others.