Monday, February 21, 2011

Wonderful Life

I was destined to be a member of the Pep Squad,
never a Cheerleader.
But hey, I still got to carry pom poms!
I love the scene in Frank Capra's holiday classic when Jimmy Stewart is walking home with Donna Reed, and he's talking about his future. He tells her he knows exactly what he's going to do for the rest of his life. "I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.... I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long..."
   Of course, anyone who has seen It's a Wonderful Life once—let alone a hundred times, as I have—knows that George Bailey (Stewart) doesn't shake off the dust of Bedford Falls, but instead ends up staying there, marrying Mary (Reed) and even forgoes his honeymoon travels to rescue his father's failing savings and loan when there's a run on the bank. George Bailey seemingly sacrifices everything for others, and only when he is at the end of his rope—when all hope is lost and it seems that he will end up on the shortest end of a short stick for all his compassion and good deeds—does he realize (with the help of a hapless angel name Clarence) that his life is richer and more accomplished than he could ever have imagined.
   The first fifty times or so I watched that movie, I thought about how important it is to recognize that our lives are all so interconnected. There is not one person whose life we touch in this world—for better or ill—that is not transformed in one way or another. It's a good lesson in mindfulness, really, and that in its self is a beautiful teaching to swallow and allow the beams to shoot out of your fingertips and toes. Yet, there's more, so much more to this film.
   Today, what brings me back to IAWL even on this bright, sunny, warm February afternoon—far from the holiday re-run cycle—is the sense that we often do not appreciate our accomplishments because they may not be the achievements for which we grasp. Accepting the George Bailey Life can be difficult, but the rewards are amazing. Let me explain.
   When I was in junior high school, I tried out for cheerleader along with every other girl in the seventh grade. I was about 5'2", 70 pounds, woefully flat-chested and painfully uncoordinated. The previous summer, while other girls were entertaining their new-found figures in bikinis, I was still playing with Barbies. I was a late bloomer, and late bloomers don't fare well when there are girls who have emerged full-blown as women, overnight. With my juvenile body, came renewed awkwardness. Yet, I thought I was worthy to wear the too-short skirt and dance about with pom-poms. No one could tell me anything different. So you can imagine my disappointment when my name was not on the roll-call of those fortunate few who were selected as cheerleaders. These buoyant girls were plucked from the masses and set down in a stratosphere quite beyond my reckoning. I was reduced to the heavy sobs and snotty sniffles of the inconsolable. 
   My sister, Mary, anticipated this disappointment (no doubt having watched my pathetic jumpings-around before try-outs) and plied me with the one treat that was a sure-fire way to end the doldrums: a McDonald's cheeseburger and fries. Placated by the rarity of fast-food (and yes, it's funny to think of this now since a turn about the drive-through is a regular course in Jack's life) I somehow made it past the grief and pain of my lost dream, but I can still remember how that rejection felt, its a palatable sensation of utter loss—heartbreak—but I also know that had  I achieved this dream back then, I would not be the person I am today. Truly. Had I become a Cheerleader, I might would not have gone on to run for student office in high school, and I would not have been accepted into the college I attended, gained my bachelors degree in English and set off of a career in advertising and marketing. Moreover, this simple slight yielded in me a sense of resilience that has served me well throughout my life. 
   How often do we think we know what is best for us—what would bring up joy or riches or security—only to have that dream derailed? The ability to see that there is much more in life, many paths that can be taken, is an ability beyond value. Why is it that we as humans, so greatly limited in our capacity to perceive the truth or even to use a portion of the brain-width that we possess, blithely convince ourselves that we can imagine our futures? Like George Bailey, we like to think we have it all figured out. We want to have A Plan. We want to feel that we are in control of the very thing that we will never—can never—possess: The Future. (And think of it, you can never lasso The Future, because once it is in your presence, it is gone, and a new Future looms. It's a bit like trying to catch your own shadow.) So in as much as we do try to plan and dream and scheme and make all the dominos fall in the right sequence to affect some ends, quite frequently we are limiting ourselves to entertain the the idea that there is one goal that is right at any given time. Like George Bailey, hindsight does provide insight. I can look back and clearly know that becoming a cheerleader was not my right path. But I had to try, I had to have that dream and lose it in order to clear the way for what was to come.
   I truly admire those who, in their 40s, say they have their futures all planned out. They are going to work hard until they're 50-something, build their 401Ks daily and then move to Hawaii and grow pineapples or whatever, with their 2.5 children, and pen novels on the side. Perhaps this will come to pass. Perhaps it will not. Perhaps in that time between now and then, their parents will age and grow ill, their children will make plans of their own, their jobs will be eliminated and unforeseen marital problems will arise. All those plans will take them someplace, but perhaps not anywhere near Hawaii. 
   Dreams are fine. But like George Bailey, we can't attach ourselves to them, because they are illusion. The best we can do is to live our lives genuinely and make decisions in keeping with our convictions. I believe when we accomplish these goals, we are always on the path that will take us exactly where we are supposed to be. 
   Am I destined to become a great reporter and raconteur for NPR? Will I achieve some modicum of success as a writer? All that remains to be seen. But is leaving behind the managerial duties of corporate life to focus on writing and reporting leading me to a happier life? Yes. And am I open to the possibility that my life might be more wonderful than I could ever imagine with my limited pea brain? Absolutely.
   Here's one last thing to consider: According to Wikipedia, Philip Van Doren Stern, the author of the short-story The Greatest Gift on which It's A Wonderful Life was based, "worked in advertising before switching to a career as a designer and editor in publishing." His now-famous 4000-word work of short fiction was inspired by a dream in the late-1930s. He tried to get it published for years, but the story was repeatedly rejected, so in 1943 he sent it out to 200 friends as his Christmas card that year. Somehow, the card made it into the hands of a producer at RKO Pictures, who, in turn, shared it with Cary Grant, who wanted to play the lead. Later RKO sold the rights to Frank Capra and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1942, could Van Doren Stern dreamed of such a future for his rejected work of fiction? Doubtful. Still, he must have had a wonderful life.

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