[Revised. 1 August 2007]
I never saw It’s a Wonderful Life until I was in my early twenties (which means it was about 20 years ago now that I first saw one of my favorite pictures). When I saw it I understood that it was what I’d been looking for all my life, but always knew, somehow, that it just wasn’t something that I’d ever achieve.
The underlying theme in the movie is about the effects that one person can have on the world around him, how his life affects others. Younger movie-goers may see this represented (somewhat pessimistically) in The Butterfly Effect, but believe me, what you may consider to be a hoary old black and white film has its terrifying aspects, too.
I never really understood why Clarence told George that he “wouldn’t like” finding out what happened to his wife in the world without him. In a development that may have been a result of Hollywood censorship or bowing to public sensitivities of the time, Mary did not marry another man but was “an old maid” (meaning Mary wasn't having sex with a different husband). How is that a bad thing from George's perspective? There’s no development of jealousy over another man, and how can you not feel great about knowing that if you had never met your spouse, no one else would ever have been good enough for them? Talk about being “soul mates”!
But who can say with conviction that if they had never been born, someone else would have died because they weren’t around? Who can state that they made everyone’s lives significantly better for being an influence? (Not just a pleasant addition to their lives, but are actually responsible for their lives not sucking?) Who has that kind of effect on their entire community?
I can certainly name a few who’ve had the opposite effects (Hitler, Bush, bin Laden, to name a few), and yes, there are plenty of police officers, fire fighters, soldiers and every day people who have saved lives, so it does happen and perhaps to an extent approaching the level of the influence George Baily had in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But most of us?
Take me, for instance. Not only have I never saved anyone’s life, but I haven’t created any, either. Got lots of nieces and nephews, though. I don’t think I’ve ever saved anyone from financial ruin or created the means for their financial solvency as George did with his life in the film. Would anyone's life have been significantly changed (better or worse) if I had never existed? I don't think so.
But I have been, like most people, an influence. Hopefully the number of people who are happy to know me (now or in the past) are glad to have done so outnumber the ones who loathe me. While I can’t say that anyone would have had a worse time if I had never been born, I do know one little guy who’d miss me terribly if I were to go away. He’s 3, and probably wouldn’t remember me in a year or so if anything were to happen now, but he’d miss me now. And you know, I think that’s all any of us really needs: to be appreciated by those we know.