Two Christmas stories that have stood the test of time are Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both stories invite the main character to suppose he were dead. In A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas future asks Scrooge to look at how people will talk about him once he has died. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is taken to an alternative world in which he sees how things in his town would be different had he never lived.
Additionally, both main characters must look into the face of death, confronting their own mortality, before they are ready to see that their problems originate in their own hearts. In A Christmas Carol, before Scrooge faces his own death, he encounters Marley’s ghost who warns Scrooge that if he continues in this path, he will end up like Marley, chained to his idol.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George sinks into such deep despair that he ends up standing on the edge of the bridge considering suicide, but instead rescues another jumper from the bridge. Incidentally, the other jumper was Clarence who, similar to Marley, was once alive but now is dead, and whose mission is to help George live a better life. Scrooge and George Bailey are vastly different characters, yet both are miserable because of the same seed of discontent growing within them, and both are cured through similar means.
Interestingly, what is different about George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge is telling. Scrooge is the lonely wealthy man who seeks to rob others of joy because he cannot feel it himself. George is the sympathetic family man who begrudges his tender-heartedness because it has left him poor and stagnant. Both the rich man and the poor man struggle with discontent, and both the rich man and the poor man believe that money is the key to their happiness.
Both men are plagued by the same disease, discontent. When a person is discontent in poverty, he does not see the mercies and blessings he has been given, but only his lack. Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, points out that a man who is discontent in this estate will think even bitter things taste sweet. We see this when George Bailey considers compromising his standards and partnering with Mr. Potter, the town tyrant.
When a person is discontent in wealth, he can never accumulate enough to satisfy his true needs. Scrooge hoarded his wealth as a kind of security. Marley warns that rather than a security it is a fetter. The discontented wealthy man can never acquire enough, and we see this in Scrooge’s bitterness. He left his loved ones to pursue wealth, but wealth proved to be a burden rather than a companion.
By the end of the story Scrooge and George Bailey are not in a different place than they were when they faced their supernatural reminders of their mortality. Yes, George got the lost money back, but his town didn’t change, his house still had the broken bannister, and he still had four children to feed. Scrooge still lived in the same dark house and Bob Cratchit was still his employee. What changed was their state of mind. And that is the lesson. Contentment is a state of mind, not some perfect combination of annual income, a home’s square footage, stock investments, luxury car, or vacation experiences.
George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge may not be characters in our time and place, but their lesson applies now as it did then. Ours is a culture that thrives on us never having enough. There are noble things that we should not be content to endure, like children dying from leukemia, or grandparents whose mind has been ravaged by Alzheimer’s, or diseases that destroy the body and injuries that result in loss of function.
However, wanting to rid the world of innocent suffering is not the kind of discontent that haunted George Bailey or Ebenezer Scrooge and it is not the kind of discontent that is endemic in our own time. Ours is a discontent that says “You deserve the best.” It is a discontent that comes from a sense of entitlement and a lack of thankfulness.
Many people blame our cultural sense of discontent on commercials that tell us that you will be happier driving a particular car or technology industries selling newer and better products before the warranty is out on your old one or magazines with air-brushed models sporting impossibly perfect bodies. But George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge didn’t have Cadillacs, iPhone 6s, or Photoshop. These industries are not the problem; they just make a profit from it. The problem is as old as human nature. We are dissatisfied with what we have and instead of addressing the root of our dissatisfaction, we would rather strive for more and more like Scrooge, or sink into despair like George Bailey. Their lesson strikes a chord with us because we are like them, and perhaps, like them, our focus on our lack robs us of our joy in what we have.