After not seeing my family for 5 months, it was great to be able to head home to New Jersey for Thanksgiving last week. On Saturday, my parents suggested we put up the Christmas tree and then watch the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a movie I have seen only 1,000 times. Seriously, I am not exaggerating here! I think we have every line of the film memorized.
That being said, even old favorites can bring new insights. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is a man who has given up his dreams of traveling the world in order to help others and has recently fallen on hard times. He is saved from committing suicide by the intervention of a guardian angel named Clarence. Depressed and hopeless, George tells Clarence, “I wish I were never born.” Clarence replies “You mustn’t talk like that” and then takes George on a journey where he sees just how much he has affected the lives of the people in his small town, and just how different their lives would have been if he were never born. Thinking back to my own struggles with depression, I said out loud, “Wouldn’t it be great if all of us could have a Clarence?”
But, wait a minute, maybe all of us could! No, I don’t mean that an angel is going to come down from heaven and sweep us off our feet (unless perhaps we drink a bit too much egg nog). Rather, in times of desperation, we can seriously ask ourselves, “What if I had never been born?” Its easy to feel disappointment for not living up to expectations (our own and others). We may not have the job we want, we may not bring in enough money; we may not have won on Olympic medal or published a book or started a non-profit to bring about world peace. But it’s often the things we take for granted, the things we overlook, that have made the biggest impact. It’s the time you gave a friend advice, or made him laugh during a time of struggle. It’s the time you shared a life-inspiring book or movie with someone that they never would have read if it weren’t for you. It’s the time you believed in someone and cheered them on so that they graduated from school, finished a race, or gave a speech to large audience, even though they were afraid. They are the things you do not know or may never know. Maybe your blog post was anonymously read by someone whose heart was touched by your words. Maybe chatting with the guy next to you on the subway last week made him decide life was worth living.
As an Advent challenge, I began to think about my own life. If I were never born, my parents would not have a child and most likely would not have gotten a dog and later provided a loving home to a rescue animal. If I were never born, a friend from high school would have never learned to play the flute and realized how amazing she was at it. If I were never born, some students from my alma mater may have never learned about the strong women figures of the Bible. I’m imperfect and I do not have everything I want, but my life has been a gift.
This Advent challenge, however, should also include another task. We can and should strive to be a Clarence, a guardian angel, in the lives of others. According to Christian phenomenologist Edith Stein, in her book On the Problem of Empathy, “it is possible for another to judge me more accurately than I judge myself and give me clarity about myself.” We may think the people in our lives know how much they mean to us. We may think they are so smart, beautiful, talented, or kind that they do not need our words. Yet, just as George Bailey kept his struggles to himself, those around us might be carrying burdens in their hearts.
So, if the advice your mom gave you as a kid (that you used to roll your eyes at) helped you through a hard task recently, let her know! If a professor taught you something that has really helped you grow as a scholar, tell her! If talking to your boyfriend at night puts a smile on your face after a long and draining day, tell him! If you miss one of your college or high school friends because she was always so much fun, tell her! If something a colleague said in class really opened your eyes, tell her! If you enjoyed the priest’s homily on Sunday, tell him!
Advent is a time of new beginnings. Perhaps, if we reflect on how our lives have been a gift and take the time to let others know just how much their lives are a gift, we can begin to see the world with new eyes. And who knows? Maybe we will even find ourselves having a George Bailey moment, being filled with glee at the simple fact that we are alive. “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”
*Please note: Depression and anxiety are serious issues. This blog post is not intended as a replacement for the advice of experienced medical professionals. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or contemplating suicide, please seek help or encourage them to do so.