It’s a Wonderful Life is a very Christian movie: in addition to taking place at Christmas, it has speaking roles for God, the Angel Gabriel and an angel second class named Clarence. However, when I was watching it I kept thinking about Buddhism. Specifically, I was thinking about how a Buddhist remake would be very similar in structure, but with a very different (and possibly better) moral.
You see, the point of It’s a Wonderful Life is to teach George Bailey to be happy with the life he's led even though it's less exciting than the life he imagined he would have. When George Bailey was young he wanted to travel, he wanted to go to college, he wanted to make a big name for himself – but he got stuck in his home town, running the savings and loan. Every time he tried to leave something would come up. First his father died, then the town’s rich miser tried to take over the savings and loan so he could foreclose on all the poor people’s houses and funnel them into the slums he owned. Eventually, George got married and had kids, which anchored him to the sleepy town of Bedford Falls seemingly forever. When the pressure of all the deferred dreams and missed opportunities becomes too much to bear, George thinks about suicide, only to be rescued by an angel who shows him how much George’s self-sacrifice has helped the entire community.
Now, I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I do know that one of the core precepts of the Four Noble Truths is that desire is the root of suffering. If we look at George Bailey’s story from that angle then all of the events remain the same but the moral becomes very different: George's youth was full of desire for adventure, education, and self aggrandizement. The longer those desires remained unfulfilled, the more he suffered. One way to alleviate that misery is to follow the Angel Clarence's advice and shuffle those desires to the side by saying “well, those weren’t fulfilled, but these other desires were” – but is that really going to fix the rot in George's heart for the long term? A Buddhist version of the Angel Clarence would teach George to process those desires and to understand why he should not have wanted those things - and that approach might actually approach the root of the problem.
As I get older, I find myself more and more in George Bailey’s shoes – I think an increased sense of regret is just part and parcel of getting older. I, too, wonder if I could have achieved more, or if I should be confident that what I’ve achieved is good enough. When I look at my peers I see some that are much more successful than me, and others are happier. I also see some that are worse off in various ways. Trying to figure it out is a vicious muddle, because there's no real rubric for judging who is winning at life. When I catch myself comparing myself to others, I try to remind myself that it’s a train of thought I’m better off not indulging.
When I saw George Bailey suffering naturally I sympathized with him: he's a lovely human being and I share his problems. And I don’t totally disagree with Clarence's methods for helping George out; maybe all George needed was a sympathetic ear until his moment of doubt passed. But at the same time, I do think that It's a Wonderful Life's moral is a bit suspect, because the script has stacked the deck in favor of George Bailey. Many of us feel that same sense of gnawing uncertainty, but not all of us will have saved our brother from drowning, and we can't all run banks that save our idyllic small towns from a greedy miser’s icy grip. What does this movie say to people that share George's doubts but don't have his accomplishments? Is it still a Wonderful Life if you can't help but dream of the life you could have had and the life you actually have had isn't that great?
No, I think sidestepping the issue and showing George all his glorious achievements might be the wrong way to solve his problem. George needs to understand that his unhappiness stems from his egotism: his childhood desires all centered around earning global recognition, but that sort of recognition doesn't automatically lead to a content life. It wouldn't take much to flip this movie from it's original moral - his family and friends are his saving grace because they actually have been giving him the respect and love he craves but he was just too blind to see it - to a better moral - they are his saving grace because they offer him a chance to serve the world and get outside of his own petty personal needs.
Of course, flipping that moral might require the angel Clarence transforming into the Bodhisattva Clarence, and that pipe dream is pretty improbable. Which is okay, because if there's one thing that It's a Wonderful Life has taught me, it's that you don't really need to achieve your biggest dreams to be happy, you just need to get to good enough. And despite my reservations about it, It's a Wonderful Life is definitely good enough.