It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful Christmas movie any Buddhist can love, but can Jimmy Stewart really save a whole town? Buddhism suggests otherwise.
If you’ve seen it a million times you know that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) gives up his dreams of adventure to run the Bailey Building and Loan in Bedford Falls. When evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) steals the deposit money, Jimmy Stewart tries to jump off a bridge but his guardian angel shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born. It’s number one on the American Film Institute list of inspirational American movies and illustrates some major Buddhist concepts.
As much as I Iove it, George needs to get over himself. One person can have a powerful influence for good or bad, but here you’re supposed to believe that without George the whole town becomes a slum called Pottersville where everyone dies early, goes insane, or becomes a criminal or a librarian. (I’m sure director George Capra was joking about librarians.)
By contrast, Buddhism puts much more emphasis on individual karma. Fortunate or unfortunate outcomes are the result of our own virtuous or non-virtuous minds rather than depending on George or any other outside forces. And research bears that out. Studies show there’s a happiness set-point where external circumstances account for only about 10% of our well-being compared to genetics and mental outlook. People who win a lottery or get abducted by pirates usually report being about as happy or miserable as they ever were soon after the experience is over. Even the historical Buddha Shakyamuni leaves his wife and son to pursue enlightenment realizing that his individual efforts otherwise can’t do much to relieve anyone’s suffering.
Much more convincing and inspiring is the emphasis on selflessness in It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey winds up happy by serving his community and the community rescues the loan company. Of course, today’s bankers just get taxpayer bailouts.
As to Mr. Potter’s fate, Capra got some complaints from people who wondered why Potter doesn’t get brought to justice. His last scene shows Potter cursing George who wishes him a Merry Christmas. In terms of Buddhist beliefs, it’s easy to reconcile that Potter has really only hurt himself with his actions.
It’s a Wonderful Life is so inspiring it even made Jimmy Stewart cry during filming. Regardless of the details, it’s full of wisdom any Buddhist could admire.