It’s A Wonderful Life!
Back in London, I’m rejoicing at the seasonal smorgasbord of theatre and culture that is buzzing all around. Our family holiday rituals are to take all visiting progeny to the theatre, so we duly went off for a wander down the river to one of my favourites, the Bridge Theatre, to see Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Then teamed it up with an evening at the British Film Institute (BFI) to see another old standby, It’s A Wonderful Life. What an extraordinary midlife punch this pair deliver!
This morning, an article in the Sunday Times says UK Prime Minister Richi Sunak is calling for a generalised roll out of Midlife MOTs (MOTs are British annual car check ups) to try and get all the 50-year olds taking early retirement back to work. Luckily, midlife transition programs like the one I just finished at Harvard are just starting to move to Europe. I wrote about their upcoming launches at the universities of Oxford and St Gallen in my FORBES column (if you are interested, hurry, applications to the former close January 8th). But, for a short, intense wake up call, Sunak may simply want to refer people to these two shows. It would do a lot of the work for him.
I’ve seen them before, but with all the research and writing I’ve been doing around midlife transitions, they struck me as newly and powerfully relevant. First written in 1843, A Christmas Carol is the tale of the infamously grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge. It was sold out in its first showing and has become a seasonal standard for the almost couple of hundred years since. There are no less than 11 versions of it playing in London this month. No wonder, it takes aim at some very contemporary, post-pandemic themes of generosity, inequality and the meaning of life.
Anyone struggling with midlife confusions and questions would do well to follow the Dickensian script. Start with a life review. Scrooge, bitter, old and alone, is visited by his deceased partner who warns him to mend his ways before it’s too late. Like any human with mortality beginning to shimmy up the horizon, a good first step is to look backwards to rethink the path to the present. What got you here may not get you where you want to go, but figuring out the lessons and legacy of the ride is the surest fuel for moving forward. Looking back in maturity, with wiser eyes, helps find the foundations for forward lift.
Scrooge is visited by three ghosts – of Christmases Past, Present and Future (the very structure of my Midlife Rethink programmes - who knew I had A Christmas Carol on unconscious playback?) Like any good latter-day psychotherapist, the ghost of Christmases Past brings him to revisit the source of his still-open wound, a miserable childhood where his father left him abandoned and alone at school over the holidays while all his friends went home to love and feasts. The lack of early love damages his ability to love, just as surely as the McEwan novel I wrote about last week, Lessons, updates the same message to modern times. The Ghost of Christmases Present holds up a mirror to the love and community that surrounds him that he excludes himself from – by mistreating his staff and repudiating his family. (Elon Musk would do well with a dose of Dickens). And the Ghost of the Future shows him that his death will only bring joy to those he has abused. He will be loved and remembered fondly by none.
The Bridge Theatre’s version was simply told by a tiny cast of three, ingeniously spinning through a dozen different roles, and powered by Sir Simon Russell Beale as the old man who learns to see the light. The packed out theatre celebrated the surprisingly emotional mood and man. I wonder if everyone left, as we did, wondering if they too had not hurt someone, or not appreciated someone, and determined to appreciate their Christmas Present with renewed conviction.
It’s A Wonderful Life is the perfect companion piece. The multi-award winning movie is like the mirror image of the play. Directed in 1946 by 49-year-old Frank Capra at his own midlife, and returning from WWII, it also uses messengers from the beyond to help humans see themselves more clearly. This time it’s the slightly mediocre Clarence, an angel who hasn’t yet merited his wings. He’s sent down to save George Bailey, a man who fears his own mediocrity and who is about to throw himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He is facing financial ruin and a life he feels he’s wasted in a small town in the middle of nowhere, with all his youthful dreams of travel and adventure long buried in the dull repetitions of duty, devotion and family.
One of only three movies to have cleaned up all the Oscars on offer (Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, etc.), It’s A Wonderful Life also goes through a process of life review. Just as A Christmas Carol zooms out to help Scrooge understand his impact by showing him how others see him (as any modern coach with a 360 Assessment might), so the movie presents two versions of Bailey’s life. The first recounted to the angel so that he may know George enough to save him. The second when the angel shows Bailey an alternate scenario of his non-existence.
Where Scrooge’s life started in abuse, Bailey’s begins in goodness. Both stay in the lane where they began. Scrooge by hardening, Bailey by saving others, always. From an early age when he saved his little brother from dying and a boss from committing a crime. When crisis hits, each need an external hand to help them see themselves in a more realistic light. One to make him a better man, the other to better appreciate himself. The twin challenges for most of us.
Angel Clarence takes Bailey on a trip through town to show him what it would have been like if he had his suicidal wish answered and never been born. His lifelong fight for the underdog would have left a vacuum that would have been filled by the ugly uber-capitalist bad-guy Potter, turning his pleasant village into a depraved hell hole. The vision of what might-have-been makes Bailey wake up and appreciate himself and his contributions for the first time.
Director Capra and George Bailey share characteristics, writes Joseph McBride in his biography of the former.
“Their equation of lack of money with desperation and shame, their conflict between a yearning for financial comfort and a desire to serve the community… their terror of anonymity, and, underlying everything, they’re doubting of their own worth.”
How many of us don’t suffer from some sort of similar combination of inner critic, restless what-ifs, and under-appreciation of what-we-have? No wonder these two tales have become such holiday staples. It takes regular repeating to remind us to be kind. To others for sure – but also to ourselves.
So this holiday season, here’s wishing us all a huge, healthy dose of both gratitude and self-compassion. For all we have done and tried and pushed. For all those we have loved and nudged and nurtured. May the lights shine in your window and your heart. May the nasties everywhere get their moment of reckoning. May their victims hang in there and strengthen in resistance. May the traumas and the wounds be healed. Today, and for all the year to come.
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