The Evergreen Lessons of George Bailey and Jo March

December 21, 2021

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Every Christmas, my family and I watch Little Women and It’s a Wonderful Life. Having all sisters, I immediately loved the real, flawed, sometimes fraught relationships between Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. (And I read the book too, don’t worry). The first time we watched George Bailey stare into the churning river beneath him on the bridge, we cried. And actually, every year since then, we have too. As Christmas approaches and we return to these films, I’ve been asking myself—and my family—what it is about these stories that resonates so strongly. 

Perhaps it’s because Jo March and George Bailey have quite a bit in common. Their lives are anchored in their families and communities, and yet both characters long for adventure outside of their hometowns. They are dreamers. And the realities of life turn out quite differently than those dreams. So perhaps part of what viewers relate to is this: Each of us dreams of the marvelous things we will do with our lives, and that vision changes as we grow up and conduct our ordinary lives. And yet, like Jo and George, we discover that our families and our homes contain adventure and treasure in their own right, although it’s often overlooked. 

George Bailey imagines stickering his suitcase with all of the exotic places he dreams of, and is prepared to embark on his trip—twice—until responsibility at the Building & Loan and a subsequent sacrifice for his brother change his plans. He doesn’t get to take his trip. Instead, he stays home and starts a family with Mary; it begins to feel “second best” to the life he dreamed of, especially when things go unimaginably wrong, which leads to his desperation on the bridge Christmas Eve. George is fixated on Potter’s statement that he is “worth more dead than alive.”

Jo March, similarly, dreams of traveling to Europe and becoming a famous author. Instead, she settles for New York City, while her sister Amy goes with Aunt March to Europe. Jo writes stories that pay the bills and tutors children in reading and arithmetic. Like George, she also makes sacrifices for her family and cares for her sister Beth using money she has saved from her work in New York to take her to the sea. She ends up back at home in Concord without having accomplished any of the things she set out to achieve. On top of that, she watches Amy marry Laurie, whose marriage proposal she declined, and comes to terms with the fact that even the adventure of marriage may be off the table for her.

George and Jo face truly challenging disappointments in their lives, just as any of us have. The films don’t deny this. But both stories are also rooted in a Christian vision and offer hope. George is visited by angel-in-training Clarence, who shows him how his life is unrepeatable and that, quite the opposite to what “Old Man Potter” would have him believe, he is invaluable. As Clarence takes George on a tour of what life would be like had George not been born, George comes to understand that he is interconnected and part of the Body of Christ. He was the one to save his brother, who went on to save others as a pilot in the war. He built homes for immigrants, was a good neighbor, and helped his community, especially at the Building & Loan when folks were in need. He had a family with Mary in a house they literally built together. Even though his life was not as he imagined it would be, he is given the chance to see it with new eyes and to appreciate the gift that it is—maybe even better (and larger) than the life he’d envisioned for himself.

In some ways, this reminds me of Jesus healing Bartimaeus of his blindness in Mark 10:46-52. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” and Bartimaeus asks to see. Jesus restores his sight and tells him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” George Bailey was blind, as all of us can be. After Clarence has shown George what life would be like had he never been born, George rushes back to the bridge and prays, “Help me, Clarence! Get me back to my wife and kids. I want to live again! Please God, let me live again.” Right then, the police officer Burt pulls up, calling to George, who can’t believe Burt knows him. “Know you?” Burt replies, “I’ve been looking all over town trying to find you.” George is known, unique, and irreplaceable. He is loved. And his sight has been restored through prayer; he is able to see the outpouring of love in his life.

Jo March grows up feeling different from her sisters and assured of what she wants from life. Yet she too is somewhat blind to the beauty and love right before her. She deals with loss. She tries to honor her parents, who also teach her about service, especially to the poor. Throughout her childhood, she wishes to speak her mind, go where she pleases, learn what she wants to know; she thinks doing these things will make her free and laments the limited opportunities society allows for girls. She envies Laurie, who can go to college and has lived abroad. And yet, when she returns home and chooses to care for her sister, write stories about her family, and start a school, she finds fulfillment. Using her talents in service of others brings her peace that is lasting. My mom used to tell me and my sisters, “Bloom where you’re planted.” This seems to be the lesson Jo (and George Bailey) learn, and that all of us must learn. We can create beauty and foster love right where we are; we don’t need to take an adventurous trip to experience these gifts.

From both George and Jo, we learn that we don’t have to do something grand to have an important life. We realize that the small, seemingly un-spectacular aspects of our lives sometimes contain the most beautiful gifts. We also see that loving and serving others is something grand in itself. For most of us, our lives will not be monumental or remembered by generations, but they are filled with love and with opportunities to sacrifice for others, to show generosity, to serve our communities.

I watch these movies every year (and cry every year) to be reminded of the beauty in having humility, in releasing our own expectations for God’s grander vision of love, and to receive his freely-given gifts in a simple home: a song played on the piano, a loving family gathered together, a shared meal, a ringing bell.

St. Teresa of Kolkata said, “Advent refreshes us, makes us healthy and able to receive Christ in whatever form he may come to us. . . If we really want God to fill us, we must empty ourselves through humility.”

So true. And Christmas is about love coming to us as Emmanuel, God with us, in the smallest and most vulnerable form of a baby. The world expected a king with mighty power, but God comes as a dependent child. These movies are also about love and about seeing how each of our lives is an unrepeatable gift.

Like George Bailey, let us pray that we can live again, renewed by the gift of Love Incarnate at Christmas, and this time, really live with the knowledge of the absolute gift of our lives, whether they unfold according to our dreams or not.

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