It Really Is a Wonderful Life …

At this time of year in the Cecconi family, one of our favorite ways to celebrate Christmas and the end of another year is to watch Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Along with A Christmas Carol, Holiday Inn and White Christmas, these movies exemplify the best of the holiday season no matter how many years pass from their original premiers.

My father, Peter, is from Indiana, Pennsylvania, the same town where Jimmy Stewart was born and raised. Jimmy’s father owned a hardware store that also offered art supplies, thus making my father a customer from an early age. When Jimmy won his first Academy Award in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story, he called to tell his dad who said, “Great, send it home and I’ll put it in the window of the store.” And there it stood along with Jimmy’s fighter pilot jacket from WWII for little boys to gaze at and make future plans.

Okay, back to It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie for which Jimmy was nominated but did not receive the award for Best Actor (BTW, no one in Indiana, PA, cared). I’ve heard people say that this movie is really about relinquishing your dreams, something modern Americans don’t find honorable at all. But I would argue that contained in this film is a set of values whose absence in contemporary society is sadly notable.

There are some great points to be made about the value of the character exhibited by George Bailey (and Jimmy Stewart, for that matter) that are worth remembering and striving for in order to one day sit on the couch with a good portion of your children and grandchildren and with tears in your eyes say, “Yes, it is a wonderful life.” Dad got there this Christmas (and it really touched me) as I watched him assess his life as father of 7 and grandfather of 14 (#15 to arrive shortly). He knows that he is more than blessed.

Every one of us is part of something bigger.
George Bailey is part of Bedford Falls. Indeed, as Clarence shows him, George Bailey is Bedford Falls: Pottersville would have been a potter’s field of the living without him. From local businessman to community organizer, from confidante to husband and father, George Bailey is actively part of his community. In a dark moment, feeling like a failure he is given a great gift—to see how many lives he saved and people he touched in doing the right thing. The book The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom expresses that same sentiment in a creative way. We are all part of something bigger, and our next right action could have a profound impact on the life of someone you may never know. Do the right thing anyway.
It’s okay to be a proud American.
George Bailey is proud to be a small-town American. He’s proud his little brother saved a whole troop carrier from a kamikaze attack. While he might not have gone overseas to fight World War II, he “fought the Battle of Bedford Falls,” doing all the thankless but necessary work needed on the home front, be it paper and rubber collection or blackout warden. He epitomizes the American voluntary spirit. I’m blessed to live in Nashville, a community where giving is part of the fiber of most residents. Whether it’s a refugee cause, the homeless, a flood, or supporting our troops, people genuinely seem to understand that we live in an amazing place that is worth protecting. Jimmy was a decorated war hero. Imagine a big-name Hollywood celebrity doing that today?
Sacrifice is not a bad thing.
After years of “focusing on me,” does American society look better for prompting the theme “never relinquish your dreams”? George Bailey relinquished a lot of dreams, but never his character or his core principles. Maybe he didn’t build that skyscraper or lasso the moon. Sure he was tempted to take that job with Mr. Potter. Do you realize what $20,000 a year meant at that time? What George built had a lot more value, even if it didn’t bring him a quick buck. And as an Italian, I thank him on behalf of all the Mr. Martinis. We recently repeated the same words that George and Mary uttered on the doorsteps of the Martinis’ new home to friends after a stressful renovation, “Bread … that this house may never know hunger. And wine … that joy and prosperity may reign forever.” George led his family to give to others and to celebrate the success of others.
Marriage and parenthood matter more than most things.
George Bailey may not have fulfilled his dream to “go places and do things,” but marrying Mary was his destiny. We’ve all been there, when children are whining, bills are piling up, and the stress of the holidays can push us over the edge. At the end of the day, or the 9-hour drive to see family—family matters. As we grow older, it matters even more as parents need our help and children less so. Creating time to call, to visit and to say, “I love you,” matters so much more than material things. These are eternal things, as children follow in the footsteps of their parents’ and grandparents’ example into a future that we may not see.
Life is sacred.
The whole film opens not on earth but in heaven, just as a man is considering “throwing away God’s greatest gift”—his life. Sadly, the holidays are for many a time of utter despair—a time when reflection can quickly turn to self-comparison and hopelessness. Yes, many families are nothing like George Bailey’s. With modern problems such as divorce, addiction, economic downturns, and the threat of terrorism on our doorstep, it’s easy to want to take the easy way out of life’s problems. The easy thing, the thing that helps us to just forget, is rarely the best thing for our families or ourselves. Yes, we have to take time to relax, take care of ourselves, but it’s in serving and loving others that we feel most alive.

I think this film remains popular because its character reminds us of the best of our character. A reminder we need very much in 2015.


Survival & Forgiveness, Life Lessons from Louis Zamperini

Louis Zamperini having reached his 97th year went to heaven on July 2, 2014, after living what can only be described as a miraculous, amazing, extraordinary life. For those who have not read the book about his life Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand, I highly recommend this well-written story that I’m pleased to say is being made into an epic movie as I type.

Actress and movie director Angelina Jolie has taken on the auspicious task of producing what must be a Herculean effort to encapsulate perhaps the most amazing story of survival I’ve ever heard. My father made sure that all seven of his children were well aware of the success of any Italian American. Louis falls firmly into that class of special people for many reasons, well beyond the 9 lives that he’d seemingly been given.

His life provides many valuable lessons applicable to career and relationships. Here are a few of those life lessons:

Louis was self-made and humble. Like many immigrant families, his family struggled to make a life in America. So anything he accomplished he accomplished without the benefit and support of wealth. But he never gave up! After realizing he had a gift for speed (by outrunning the police), he turned it into a passion for sprinting that took him to the Berlin Olympics.

“Someone who doesn’t make the [Olympic] team might weep and collapse. In my day no one fell on the track and cried like a baby. We lost gracefully. And when someone won, he didn’t act like he’d just become king of the world, either. Athletes in my day were simply humble in our victory.”

Louis was goal oriented. From street kid to Olympic athlete, Louis had the world by the tail until his B-24 bomber crashed into the warm Pacific during WWII. Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps.

Beaten and starved, he was saved from execution due to his status as an athlete—the same status that earned him unbearable torture.

“All I want to tell young people is that you’re not going to be anything in life unless you learn to commit to a goal. You have to reach deep within yourself to see if you are willing to make the sacrifices.”

Louis wasn’t perfect. What I loved most about his biography was the truth it shared. Louis struggled with alcohol haunted by the burden of what he’d endured during the war. His addiction and misery nearly ended his marriage and his life until he heard Billy Graham, came to faith, and radically changed his life. His story of redemption and finding a higher purpose is inspiring and relatable.

“I’d made it this far and refused to give up because all my life I had always finished the race.”

Louis believed in forgiveness. As an inspirational speaker, Louis spoke about forgiveness. It became his theme. He made a point of meeting with and forgiving the Japanese soldiers who tortured him, hugging their necks and explaining the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Louis ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, not far from the POW camp where he had been held.

“I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self-destructive. If you hate somebody, you’re not hurting the person you hate, you’re hurting yourself. It’s a healing, actually, it’s a real healing … forgiveness.”

Rest in peace, Louis Zamperini. You certainly deserve it.