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It's a Thankless Life: The "doormat syndrome" and George Bailey
Has anyone noticed how depressing Christmas specials, even childrens' cartoons, are? The stories are set up so the main characters experience untold strife right up until Christmas morning, when all their dreams come true. The hero's journey, the selflessness, the trials are finally rewarded. All of these themes are present in one of the best-loved holiday classics, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.
George Bailey's wonderful life is a tale of a narcissist and doormat with an unhealthy attachment to the small, middle-class town of Bedford Falls, somewhere in middle America. He's an honest, intelligent, hardworking guy from beginning to end, and it seems that without his self-sacrifice, the world will simply fall apart.
When George was eight years old or so, his brother Jack fell through some ice in a sledding accident. George saved his life, but lost the hearing in his left ear due to the extreme cold of the water. When he graduated high school, George, always the stand-up guy, allows his brother to go away to college while he takes over the family business after his father dies (and keeping his nutty old uncle Billy on board as an employee).
George never liked the family business. From the earliest scenes in the movie, we know that George longs to leave his one-horse town and see the world. But George is the oldest son, so he takes over as head of Bailey Building and Loan, an operation that secures low-interest home loans, supposedly on the honor system. The low profits of this business is a source of great glee for Old Mr. Potter, the town Scrooge. When the crash of '29 occurs, Potter offers to pay $.50 on the dollar for the building and loan accounts, and offers George a cushy job with his company. George refuses the "scurvy little spider," and manages to keep the company together by appealing to his account-holders' trust in him and using his honeymoon fund-while his brand-new bride waits in the car.
At least he's got a pretty wife who understands. Life seems to be going well for George, especially since his brother Jack has just been awarded the congressional medal of honor for saving "all the men in that transport" in WWII. George, unfortunately (?) is "4F" due to that sledding episode that left him deaf in one ear. But he's proud of his brother, and his successful company.
Then, the unimaginable happens. Batty old Uncle Billy loses the night's deposit of eight-thousand dollars in the lap of Old Scrooge, who, of course, knows very well where the money went, and the Building and Loan is due to be audited that day. George knows he'll probably go to jail, and sinks so low as to go to Potter for help. Potter lets him suffer-so he can buy the company.
Drowning his sorrows in drink, George lets it all sink in. He sacrificed and suffered all of his life, and look where it got him? He decides to end it all by jumping into the river-on Christmas Eve.
And here's where it gets really depressing.
George has been watched all along by his own personal guardian angel, Clarence. Well, he's not officially an angel-yet. The angel, knowing George pretty well by now, plunges into the river so George can save him. Clarence tells George that his wish-to never have been born-is granted.
Without George, Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, a den of iniquity. His brother died in the sledding accident. His friends are failures. His uncle is in an asylum. Worst of all, his wife-the horror!-is a spinster librarian. The town is full of sinful jazz clubs and casinos. "So you see, George, you really did have a Wonderful Life," says Clarence.
The end of the nightmare is reminiscent of Scrooge's jubilant redemption. George takes his famous, snowy run down main street, wishing "Merry Christmas" to every building in town-including Potter's. "And a Merry Christmas to you," Potter says, "in Jail!"
George returns home to his wife and family, almost drunk with happiness, to find that his wife has enlisted the entire town to save George. There's drinking, singing, and a pile of money in the middle of the table. All of George's sacrifices have finally been rewarded.
The big surprise party is a common dream of the doormat, the martyr. Most of the time, he thinks, he is unappreciated. It's a thankless life. Nobody cares about all the work, all the sacrifice, everything he does for others. His self-esteem is dependant upon the approval of others, but nothing less than a party like George's will satisfy him. The person who cannot say "no," may be a bit of a narcissist. He must say yes, because he is sure the world will fall apart without his sacrifice. He just doesn't have a guardian angel to prove him right.
Psychologists tell us that narcissism, beyond self-admiration, is based on the desire to be the center of admiration. Altruism, taken to its logical extremity, is narcissism, and the only possible reward for an altruist (of whatever stripe) is admiration for his "noble sacrifice". It's a Wonderful Life is the perfect example of this.
The altruist worldview is based on the notion that the "noble sacrifice" is not only good, but necessary to the maintenance of society. As the alternate universe that the angel shows George demonstrates, without him everything would fall apart. Unlike normal people living in a normal world, he does find that the world is centered around him. His situation, and his subsequent reward, is the narcissist's and the altruist's dream.
Is George's alternate universe something to celebrate, or his worst nightmare? It is obvious that he is appreciated and necessary, but the message perhaps unintended by Kapra is that George must go on sacrificing his own self-interest, because his friends and family may be too incompetent to live their wonderful lives without him. The film offers us no alternate outcomes, from any other choices George could have made. Perhaps the reason is that George, the doormat, couldn't have made any other choices. That's just who George is.
At least he learned one lesson: the people in his life he thought so unreliable and incompetent weren't so bad after all, and they just needed him to give them a chance to prove it.
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