--by Mike Murray
Movies such as An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun gave one meaning to the notion of earning one's wings -- the song, The Green Berets ("put silver wings, on my son's chest..."), another.
Centuries ago, a mythological phoenix used its wings to rise from the ashes. And then there was the fabled Mercury, whose feathered heels afforded him unsurpassed fleetness of foot.
But the most endearing tales of wings involve angels. Perhaps none is more touching than the story of Clarence, the wingless, aging cherub who -- at long last -- acquired the prized appendages via his assistance to George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.
I know, I know: It was only a movie. Worse, it was panned by critics in its day as mere "Capracorn" -- Hollywood schmaltz at its worst. But the film has endured. In fact, it has done much more than that; it has taken its place among the holiday classics, a "must see" each year for millions. For me, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without at least one viewing of the flick.
The movie focuses on George Bailey's many trials and tribulations, and culminates with his desperation at having run smack into that old saw, "No good deed goes unpunished." Sure, viewers are ultimately reassured that, "No good deed -- however small -- is ever wasted." But it takes a while to get to the moral of the story.
Along the way, Bailey is ever-giving and self-sacrificing -- though, as realistically portrayed by Jimmy Stewart, not without complaint. I recall my mother's lament in moments of fatigue and distress: "That d*** Catholic church." She had seven children by a first marriage (to an alcoholic) and two more by a second marriage, after her first husband -- my father -- died.
The Catholic church, you see, forbade contraception (aside from the "rhythm method"). Married to a trying husband ...riding herd over a houseful of rambunctious children, mostly boys ...you get the idea. She was periodically in ill humor.
So it pleased me that Frank Capra gave his audience a George Bailey who, while always moved to "do the right thing," sometimes did so reluctantly, did so ungraciously. He was often annoyed at having to subvert his own dreams in order to tend to the needs of others. He chafed, he moped, he ranted. In a moment of despair, he angrily chewed out the well-meaning, hard-working Mrs. Welsh, teacher to his youngest child, Zu Zu.
I found it refreshing that Stewart's character was portrayed in such a thoroughly human way. It made his sacrifice so much the greater. For, if it had been no burden for him to forgo fulfilling his own desires in order to assist others, where would the heroism be?
In a similar way, it requires no courage to intervene on behalf of another where fear is absent. If you pull a bully -- a person who intimidates you not at all -- off a victim, you summon no bravery in the act. But, when you wade into dangerous waters -- when you stand up to an enemy that you are wholly uncertain that you can overcome, an enemy who can potentially do you serious harm -- you are eminently courageous.
Your actions are commendable in both instances. But only in the second are you truly brave.
It is in a similar fashion that George Bailey was virtuous. He was especially virtuous not in spite of his discomfort; he was so because of it. His assistance was all the greater because it involved great sacrifice.
Still, praise for the Bailey character is writ large in the film. For all his flaws, he is truly admirable and endearing. No viewer can miss that. So many lives were touched by his, so many circumstances were altered for the better by his selfless acts.
And, when the bell rings on the Christmas tree in the final scene, little Zu Zu proclaims, "Look daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."
To which George replies, "That's right ...that's right! Attaboy, Clarence!"
The direct implication is that Clarence finally made it to the highest rung on the celestial ladder. But also hinted at is the notion that George Bailey would eventually make amends for so harshly haranguing his child's teacher earlier in the story.
There's no escaping the final message: that good deeds are worth doing; that people do notice and appreciate them; that the universe does, after all, make sense.
I quibble with none of that. I have a large lump in my throat at the film's conclusion each time I view it.
Still, as moved as I am by the George Bailey character, I am equally fascinated by Clarence the angel. When Bailey stood in despair on that snowy bridge contemplating suicide, Clarence jumped into the water below first. He saved Bailey by allowing George to save him.
The logic of that reasoning confounded Bailey at the time, but he eventually came to appreciate it.
I have witnessed that dynamic over and over. It seems that often when people help others in need, they ultimately become the beneficiaries of their own kindness -- even if the rewards are often not always easily recognized or immediately realized.
In the midst of a trying day, when wearily picking up after unruly and uncooperative children; or when caring for animals who can at times seem selfish and demanding; or when tending to cranky family members who have special physical or emotional needs; or when performing volunteer services for recipients who sometimes seem less than grateful; we can be forgiven occasional unkind thoughts and words.
Assistance absent difficulty involves little virtue.
But it goes further than that. It is not simply an outgrowth of that old saying, "That which we achieve easily we regard lightly." Difficulty -- while certainly a factor -- does not in itself define virtue. It is a matter of doing what's necessary. Whatever's necessary. When it's necessary. Mercy and kindness cannot be deferred until convenient moments; they must be summoned in timely fashion. They must be applied precisely when needed.
When I observe people doing just that, I see the strain. But I see something else, too. I see the givers change for the better. Despite the sometimes heroic effort required to nurture and help others, and despite attendant irritation, they grow in ways large and small. If there are wings to be earned, then certainly they earn theirs.
The George Baileys of the world surely achieve their just rewards in the "next life," whatever that is. But so do the Clarences. I am not suggesting that the needy of the world exist solely to give others a chance to do good works. Because, although the fictional Clarence jumped into the icy water in order to provide George Bailey just such an opportunity, I do not believe that the desperate among us were placed in their difficult situations merely to give the rest of us a chance to improve ourselves.
The fact is that there are many creatures in need. Some are human, some are animal. Some we pass everyday on the street, others live continents away. We are ourselves changed for the better when we assist them. The needy give us the chance to figuratively (perhaps literally, depending upon your belief system) earn our wings. And in so doing, we just might be giving them a chance to earn theirs, too.
Copyright ©2005 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.