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What It’s a Wonderful Life Teaches Us About Mental Health

“Look, Daddy! Teacher says, ‘every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings’!”

While it may not be the most theologically accurate, It’s a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite movie. Every Christmas growing up, the black & white film would be playing on my grandparents’ TV as a background to our holiday festivities. When I finally sat down one year and watched the movie in its entirety, I fell in love.

At the crux of the movie, the main character, George, is in a crisis. His uncle misplaced a large sum of their business’ money and George is facing scandal and prison. He desperately needs help, but instead of turning to his friends or family, he spirals into frustration and shame. He lashes out at his loved ones, almost attempts suicide, and wishes he had never been born, because everyone would be better off without him.

This is where his guardian angel steps in. George is given the chance to see what the lives of the people around him would be like if he had never been born. If you somehow haven’t seen the movie in the 75 years it’s been out, I won’t give away everything, but suffice to say this experience leads George to truly appreciate what a gift his life is, and to have immense joy despite the suffering he is going through.

Here’s the part that makes me cry every single time, and the part that I think we need to pay attention to now more than ever: when George gets back home to his family, his beaming wife rushes him into the living room, before the door bursts open and people from all over town come flooding in. None of them know what is going on; all they were told is that George needs help. The living room table is quickly covered in dollar bills as people empty their pockets, wallets, and savings to help their friend, before they even know the reason why he needs it. In a room packed with people, George’s brother makes a toast: “To my brother George, the richest man in town!”

The message of It’s a Wonderful Life is so necessary for us today, especially in the context of mental health. In a world that is more isolated than ever, so many are lacking in true community. When we go through something difficult, we so often turn inward rather than reaching out to our friends and family for support. And when we’re the ones being reached out to, how often do we follow through? How willing are we to give freely of our time, money, prayers, and support without counting the cost? We need community, we can’t survive without it - and we aren’t expected to, because we were created in the image and likeness of a triune God who is a communion of love! We were made for relationship, and when we are struggling, it is our relationships with others that can most powerfully remind us what a gift we are.

Christmas is a beautiful time of year, but it’s also a time that can make us feel more isolated (and not just because everyone’s huddled inside waiting for the temperature to be double digits again). For some, a season when everyone is expected to be joyful highlights just how sad or anxious they’re feeling. For others, the holidays force them to reckon with just how broken their family is. For some, traveling means being away from their faith community and support system, which leads to falling into temptation and sin. George Bailey shows us that we don’t need go through our suffering alone - that when we open up to those around us, our community can show up for us in beautiful ways.

At every time, but especially this holiday season, I hope we can take to heart the truth that our lives are richer when we pour ourselves out for others - and when we allow others to pour themselves out for us.

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