It is a Wonderful Life

Channel surfing is not something I’m adept at, largely because I rarely find myself searching for a way to occupy my time. On one of those unusual late-night occasions, I learned that television during the holidays is not rich in viewing choices, unless, perhaps, you need a new set of Ginsu steak knives or a vacuum cleaner that cleans floors and bakes bread all at the same time. I finally found and tuned-in to the old black-and-white classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed still look great onscreen together, but a word of warning is in order. Regardless of where you begin viewing, be careful to watch all the way to the end. If you stop before the film is over you will likely feel compelled to join George Bailey on the bridge above Bedford Falls, preparing to hurl yourself into the icy river below. I have watched the movie untold times, but my emotions still lurch at the cruel hand dealt Bailey before Clarence becomes his angelic aide-de-camp. Is Frank Capra’s production a classic because we identify with George Bailey’s unfolding tragedy, or because we all long for our own happy ending?

I learned a long time ago that it is far easier to rail against something than to enact positive change. Intellectual laziness lends itself to conveniently dismantle another’s argument rather than tackle the rigors of defending one’s own. The same can be said of introspection. I have no difficulty whatsoever in identifying and bemoaning the evil within—there is plenty of it to go around (unequivocally, there lies nothing good in me, and the bad inevitably oozes out like toxic slime that taints everything I touch). The truth is that when I look hard enough I readily detect a rancid note to much of my past. I have failed in everything I have attempted, the reality of which can be paralyzing. I come clean about self-disappointment without too much trouble, but what is far more difficult is to honestly confess what is good in me for the purpose of building on that positive foundation.

I do not understand why, but there is an odd sadistic pleasure in dwelling on guilt.

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Fredrick Buechner, Originally published in “Wishful Thinking” and later in “Beyond Words”).

Less immediately satisfying, but long term significance lies in developing the good in me rather than retreating in remorse. Call it constructive enhancement versus destructive guilt; choose advance over retreat, renewal rather than remorse. During my years in academia I encountered a revolutionary approach to self-awareness whose roots are discernible in Scripture. In “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” author Marcus Buckingham seeks to persuade us to develop our strengths rather than expending all our effort on propping up weak walls and breaches in our fortress. His argument is convincing. The idea is to capitalize on the good in order to make it great, rather than placating the bad in order to make it more palatable. What if we were to apply this to a New Year? Instead of resolving to strengthen areas of weakness, what if we choose to expend our best effort in exploiting areas of strength? What if everything prior to this moment—the good, bad and ugly—has prepared me for such a time as this? In Christ, we have all we need for this moment and this life to be full of wonder and purpose.

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