I'm stepping a little out of my safety zone and doing something I rarely do: an article about myself. I am comfortable with fiction and short stories, because I call the shots about what I want reality to be. However, I am going to reveal something personal, and I think it will be therapeutic for me.
As is tradition in our home, we watched It’s a Wonderful Life on Thanksgiving. I’d like to share a short segment of that movie. George Bailey has locked horns with Mr. Potter, who wants to dissolve his mom and pop Building and Loan Company. In a moment of protest, George offers the following statement.
George Bailey: Just a minute - just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was - why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that? Why - here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You - you said - what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken down that they... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be.
To be Mr. Potter or George Bailey? This is the struggle I wrestle in my heart as I lay in bed at night, and as I walk the street during the day. To most, the choice is clear. George Bailey is a noble, selfless man who continually makes the responsible choice to serve his fellow man, while Mr. Potter is a warped, frustrated old man who seeks his own way and his own purposes.
But allow me a moment to expose my heart and define the struggle I suffer. For just a moment, I want to remove the immoral, greedy element from Mr. Potter and examine him as a practical businessman. He is a businessman of profound abilities, and uses his influence to advance his business interests. One might accurately describe him as calculating. And his calculating business mind does benefit society. After all, it was his business that made housing affordable to the good citizens of Bedford Falls, and without men like Potter, a large piece of the puzzle would be missing. In fact, to some, the Potters of this world are not simply a piece of the puzzle; they are the corners and edges of the puzzle.
At my work, I am surrounded by Potters—men who are focused, driven, and calculating. They are the men who drive the business machine forward. The men who make decisions that aren’t influenced by compassion, but rather by necessity. They operate on cold, hard facts.
George Bailey, on the other hand, is a man who has embraced the passion of life and empathizes with the common human condition. He is a man who will continually take the high road, even at his own expense.
At my work, I could count on one hand the George Baileys. I should know, for I am one. I am continually criticized for my “weakness”—that is, my compassion. I’m often confronted by my peers for being too easy, too nice. “Don’t get me wrong,” they say. “You’re one heck of a nice guy, and I think a lot of you, but you are way too soft…” and you can probably finish the sentence for me.
Criticism is a unique gift. You can either dismiss it entirely, or you can embrace it and own it. Or, and this is the harder, better choice, you can examine it for truth. Am I too weak? Too soft? Perhaps. Christ never called us to be weaklings, but to be men of valor who stand for truth.
Am I, on the other hand, willing to discard my faith or moral fiber in order to be more like the other cogs in the machine—like the ones who actually drive the machine forward? Talk about disingenuous! I would be forcing myself to act and behave in a way that contradicts who I am and what I believe. And yet the struggle—the conflict, gnaws on my bones at night as I struggle with what others see in me. Or think they see. Is it possible my peers are simply critical because I’m different than them? Ugh! I thought I was done with peer pressure when I left high school.
My struggle may not mean anything to others. Some might not even understand what I’m expressing, but I examine my criticisms and extrapolate that which is beneficial. The question haunts me. Am I too weak? Perhaps. But is that a weakness? Perhaps not. Perhaps the weakness the world sees is nothing more than compassion for others and lack of selfish ambition. The fact that I would rather relive someone’s pain, and to do it at my own expense, rather than drive the machine forward would offend the Potters of the world. We do need Potters. But we also need George Bailey. Together, they create balance, even though they are at odds with each other and are never at peace.
Well, I will struggle with these ideals for my life. I pray that I will never be the one who tries to buy off George Bailey because I’ve become a Potter. At one point in the movie, Potter realizes that George has beaten him in the game. In order to remove George from the competition, he deceitfully offers him the deal of a lifetime, and basically throws everything at him that he’s ever wanted. In a weak moment, George is tempted to take the offer. However, after a greasy handshake, George comes to his senses and flees temptation.
May God grant me the strength to hold to my principles, even if the world offers me the world in exchange.