(T)he great poems of heaven and hell have been written, and the great poem of earth remains to be written
– Wallace Stevens, 1879-1955
When I was a kid, George Bailey was a hero. Every Christmas, I would look forward to watching the movie It’s a Wonderful Life on TV, the 1946 classic by Frank Capra. The story revolves around an everyday fellow in crisis, who is given the opportunity to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born. That movie (and Black Magic Chocolates) were probably the highlights of the season for me. Why? George saved a boy’s life, George built houses, George saved the family business, George stood up to Mr. Potter, George was a good father, George helps an angel gets his wings, etc. His hometown without him is a den of sin and despair. I loved the idea that the famous and powerful, whom we all worship, are in fact harming the world, while the guy in the back of the room that no one notices, is saving it. If I could only be like George Bailey, I thought.
Somewhere along the way though, I started to question my hero worship. I mean, George was for all intents and purposes, a loser. He missed out on college and his honeymoon, he was the propertior of a failing business that had to bailed out by crumpled up dollar bills from all his buddies, his house was falling apart and full of screaming kids. His dream was to see the world and become an architect. Instead he got travel posters and a paper-pushing desk job. Was this all propaganda? Feel good hokum? More pap churned out for the masses to keep them in line? “Oh sure, little guy, you matter so much! If you weren’t here to turn on the lights, how could you admire your betters? If you didn’t keep having children, who would pay our taxes and fight our wars? Consider yourself lucky — do you know how stressful it is to have something different and exciting happen every single day? The stress and responsibility of being successful?”
Now as a grown-up, I feel like these two Georges – the winner and loser – sometimes wage a battle in my soul. The life of a mother of small children can seem an uber-exercise in self-mortification. Don’t get me wrong — I totally get my vocation. But sometimes, what with a toilet-training two year old, a pouty, attention-hungry four year old, a baby up all night, school age kids with all their assorted crises, part of me yells, “You’ve been duped! You’re a chump to be doing all this work. When will it ever be your turn?” The time to pursue the dreams that my adolescent self thought it should pursue — wealth, fame, infamy — is slowly slipping away, even if I were to try to chase them. But what surprises me most about this life is how hard the little things are. It requires amazing amount of effort and self-control not to snap, scream, to act patient, to explain, to discipline instead of ignore, to forgive again and again. Heather King writes about this force of will in her new book Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux. She describes how “Therese trained herself, literally breaking into a sweat from the effort,” to keep from turning around and glaring at an annoying Sister during prayers.
Try that the next time someone jumps the line at the bank, or cuts you off as you try to merge onto the freeway, or insinuates you aren’t working hard enough! Begin to ponder the years of discipline, prayer, and the turning of the will toward God required for such a ‘tiny’ taming of the instincts.
Rather than being the life of a weakling, of a bumbler, or the unambitious, the everyday grind with its constant self-denial and sacrifice, is actually a work of unnoticed heroism.
This article by Michael Kirke from MercatorNet, really spoke to me. It summarizes the work of Professor John Paul Wauck on the role of the everyday in Christian literature. Professor Wauck asks where is this heroism of everyday life portrayed in literature?
“How might one, then, in practice,” he asks, “convey the heroism of ordinary Christian life? To appreciate the difficulty, consider, for example, the following point from The Way by Saint Josemaría Escrivá, the champion of sanctity in ordinary life:
‘We were reading – you and I – the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him struggle whole months and years (what an ‘accounting’ he kept in his particular examination of conscience!) one day at breakfast he would win, the next day he’d lose…. “I didn’t take butter… I did take butter!” he would jot down. May we too – you and I – live our…. ‘drama’ of the butter.’ ”
Kirke ponders Wauck’s question, whether it is even possible to capture the struggle of everyday life in literature. Kirke too feels that this epic struggle requires more attention. For it is, quite plainly, in the boring everyday that our souls are lost or saved. Most people don’t wake up and declare “Today’s the day for Mortal Sin!” It’s the constant little choices, the turning of the will either toward or away from God, that determines the fate of our eternal life. To paraphrase Peter Kreeft, we need stories of heroic virtue. The virtue required to tend small children, provide for your family, return rudeness with kindness, and persevere when no one seems to notice or care.
So is George Bailey off the hook? Overall yes, but not in the most important way. The movie sums up with “No one’s a failure who has friends,” which does seem to be the sort of feel-good twist of a Hollywood movie. The real drama is a lot harder to accept: He who chooses failure in the World’s eyes for the sake of Truth, is a hero. I hopefully await someone to take up this challenge in his or her art.