It’s A Wonderful Life?
© Wes Gow
There’s a scene in Hook where a Lost Boy slowly walks up to a kneeling Robin Williams; the boy is young, his face intent, furrowed brow. He tentatively places his hands on either side of Robin’s face, who is equally unsure of what’s happening. The boy begins to carefully manipulate his face: removing the glasses, smoothing away wrinkles from his eyes, raising Robin’s eyebrows and pushing back the corners of his mouth into a forced smile. At this, the boy’s own expression erupts in wonderful excitement. “Oh there you are, Peter,” he says. Robin Williams is Peter Pan, who has returned to Neverland as an adult, and a heavy-laden one at that. He’s so worn down with the trappings of adulthood in the real world that he’s lost any sense of the wonder and adventure that were so strongly manifested in his previous identity.
I’m thirty-six, and I’ve come to believe that this regression, this calcification, is what happens somewhere between the years of college graduation and the stage of life I’m currently navigating. Unlike my early twenties, I now have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. (The previous two are incredible, the latter is a necessary evil, I guess). But like so many others in this particular decade, I’m in the throes of career transition. And in the midst of endless (and so far fruitless) networking efforts, resume tweaks, and job searches, I finally discovered that I’m approaching this task through the lens of ought to instead of want to. [Quick caveat: sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. I get it, I’ve done it, and I’m doing it. Last week I learned how to make a latte under the tutelage of a high school senior. I’m older than my barista trainer by nearly more years than she's been alive. Did I mention I have a graduate degree? Talk about humbling.] Anyway, the thought of entertaining the question, “What do you want to do?” felt so jarring at first that I immediately dismissed it. I’m an adult with responsibilities; no time for that nonsense.
You see what happened there? The question I should be asking wasn’t initially able to penetrate through the tough exterior of callouses and scar tissue that come with the toil of adulthood. I was Mr. Peter Pan, long removed from the dreams and desires that are unique to all of us. I’m not suggesting we should never leave Neverland; we all know that person who actively or passively avoids responsibility. I’m saying that you and I (and everyone in our spheres of influence) will be better off if we fight to stay in touch with that which makes us come alive rather than fall in step with someone else’s story or expectations.
Which brings me to the title of this article. Every Christmas season my wife and I get a sitter and carve out an evening to enjoy a nice dinner followed by a showing of It’s A Wonderful Life in the old Naro cinema in Norfolk. The story of the movie has always fascinated me, but I’ve only recently been able to pinpoint why. For me, the end is too misleading and in fact altogether unfulfilling. George Bailey’s fear and fury aren’t fueled by the actions of his goofy uncle; they’re much deeper. Earlier in the film you see a boy who craves adventure, and a young man on the threshold of pursuing his dreams of travel and college and architecture. Slowly though, and sadly, George gives it all up for someone else’s life. Is there value and bravery and honor in sacrificing the desires of his own heart to stave off the evil Mr. Potter (thus allowing others in town to better enjoy their own lives)? Certainly. To an extent. Because near the end of the film, in the midst of all the humor of a hapless angel earning his wings, is a man who’s going to kill himself. Don't miss that. George Bailey has a house, a job, a beautiful wife and lovely children, and he’s standing on a bridge with a life insurance policy in his pocket and a frozen river of pain beneath him: a man once so alive, and still by some measure so blessed, on the brink of ending it all. George Bailey had grown so far removed from the flame of his soul, from his own Neverland, that it took a freaking act of God to remind him that there was still a life worth living underneath the yoke of his burden.
Now I’m not trying to damper your holiday spirits and I’m certainly not suggesting that an employment decision driven by necessity is a singular step toward suicide! Anything worthwhile is uphill, and every hero’s journey goes through the trenches. What I do believe, however, is that if you lose sight of the end goal of that journey, if you get lost in the trenches, then an important part of you may very well die, and the rest of us will all be worse off for it. We need you alive:) Not just living and breathing, but really living!
I mentioned that the ending of this iconic film is unsatisfying for me - scary, even. That’s because I find myself wondering what George Bailey is doing in late January that following year. Sure, he was able to thwart Potter once again, this time through a beautiful group carol and a heartfelt outpouring of thanks. But long after the glitter and tinsel are gone, after everyone’s left and Zuzu’s petals are lost, what is George Bailey waking up to? Because if it’s driving back to the Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan for any reason other than to burn it down, I can’t help but feel afraid for him.
My wife and I are working hard to teach our four-year old that Christmas is more about giving than getting. We’re making zero progress, of course. But this Christmas, you’re probably long overdue on asking yourself what it is that you want, particularly out of work and life and play. (I listen to a great podcast by that title, actually, Work, Life, Play, and I’ve been helped tremendously by it in the search for my own answers).
Reconnect with your Peter Pan. Let some Lost Boy remind of you who you are or were, before some low-ranking angel has to talk you off a cliff.