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The professor asked the class: “Name the best real estate movie ever.”
The class, comprised of MBAs in training, had just completed a rigorous course learning to mint real estate into gold. Excited to make a final positive impression and earn a good grade, the professor tallied their answers and selected a winning film from the survey. Which movie do you think they chose?
The great classic Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed film It’s a Wonderful Life: may not have been your first answer.
But audiences love few American films more than It’s a Wonderful Life – even though it flopped commercially when released in 1949. Nominated for five Oscars and recognized by the American Film Institute as one of America’s top twenty films of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life scores high on just about everyone’s list of favorite movies. However I doubt that it is the real estate aspect of the story that inspires so many to watch this ancient black and white movie every Christmas.
If you haven’t seen it: the movie’s protagonist George Bailey has an unwavering desire to leave his birthplace, the small town of Bedford Falls, to see the world and become someone significant. The desire buds with a childhood subscription to National Geographic and blossoms with carefully conceived plans that enjoy the support of his friends and family. He has saved the funds and is prepared to embark.
However on the eve of George’s departure his father dies, putting George in a difficult situation. He has to choose between his dreams and the responsibility of running “the old savings and loan”. The institution’s directors will close the bank unless George Bailey agrees to stay and run it.
George doesn’t see this dilemma coming. He does not want to defer his dreams a day, much less abandon them entirely to slave at a penny-ante community bank he has worked to escape his entire life. However — give up his dreams to save the bank is exactly what George Bailey does.
Why did George Bailey do this? What in the world would possess a person to sacrifice their deeply cherished personal preferences to do something they do not like? In this case George earns a modest living providing home loans to the lower middle class residents of Bedford falls. This results in a modest community from which he and his wife derive tremendous little, other than personal satisfaction.
When offered the opportunity to earn exponentially more in exchange for extinguishing the only means of home ownership in his small town; he turns down the offer saying, “You think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well it doesn’t…. In the whole vast configuration of things you are nothing but a scurvy little spider.”
The Baha’i teachings have a very similar take on the question.
Baha’u’llah says as much to Napoleon III:
Rejoicest thou in that thou rulest a span of earth, when the whole world, in the estimation of the people of Baha, is worth as much as the black in the eye of a dead ant? …Whither are gone the proud and their palaces? Gaze thou into their tombs, that thou mayest profit by this example, inasmuch as We made it a lesson unto every beholder. – The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p 22.
George chooses to sacrifice his own desires for the benefit of his community. Wow — a banker giving up money, power and prestige for something he knows in his being is superior – a community where the poor have a chance to step up to the dignity of home ownership.
This personal choice, which reflects the Spirit of Christ applied practically to benefit others, makes It’s a Wonderful Life so inspiring. At this time of extreme individualism and the paralyzing isolation that goes along with it, we find George’s deference to the well-being of his community and the simple love he receives in return beautiful, compelling, and right in line with the spirit of true religion.
Of course, you could dismiss the entire film as a particularly excellent fable, and say that people don’t really put their community before themselves. However, the truth is that people render selfless service through non-profit organizations like the Mona Foundation and human rights advocacy organizations like the Tahirih Justice Center everyday — and expect nothing in return.
Millions of George Baileys all over the world choose to prefer others to themselves, sometimes at tremendous personal sacrifice. Moreover, many do so in obedience to what they believe is God’s good pleasure:
Religion is the light of the world, and the progress, achievement, and happiness of man result from obedience to the laws set down in the holy Books. Briefly, it is demonstrable that in this life, both outwardly and inwardly the mightiest of structures, the most solidly established, the most enduring, standing guard over the world, assuring both the spiritual and the material perfections of mankind, and protecting the happiness and the civilization of society — is religion. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 71-72.
Can you imagine a world without the benefit of the love of good, the love of God and the desire to win His good pleasure? Knowing this should give each of us cause to praise God and be grateful for those souls who sacrifice their all for the benefit of others.