“You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it.”

The story of George Bailey echoes through my heart, especially during these days of December. What is it about “It’s a Wonderful Life” that makes it such a perennial film? I watch it again and again, year after year.

But as wonderful as it is, it is also very troubled, very painful.

I spend a lot of my life walking into rooms all over the place, tasked with saying something to an audience that I usually don’t know. While nervousness is always part of it, this is too: I assume that everyone there has a hurt, a disappointment, a wound, a heartache, sometimes grievously so. I know that we won’t talk about it publicly, but I know that it is true. There is a lot of malice in this world—and whether the Mr. Potters of life are horribly literal or awfully metaphorical, they weigh upon us, terribly.

And like George Bailey, more often than anyone knows, we feel the strain in our souls, desperately. Stuck in moments that we are sure we can’t get out of; U2 understands this, and sings this song all over the world—and we sing along, sure that it is our song too. The best stories and the best songs tell the truth about us as human beings; we can see ourselves, hear ourselves, in art that is like that. It feels like the world we live in, like the life we know.

So isn’t it strange that this holy visitation from high heaven comes to George on Christmas Eve? The theology of angels and their ways may not be altogether right, but I am sure that George’s anxious, desperate cry to God is right. I feel stuck in a moment and I can’t get out of it! In his forlornness he ponders the worst of all possibilities, and if we are more than voyeurs looking in on his sorrow—but rather have honest empathy because we too know moments that seem as awful as that –then we hold him and his story close to our hearts, knowing that we yearn just like that.

As I hear again the Christmas carols, I listen closely for songs that reflect the life I have, the world I know. Lowly exile… Satan’s tyranny… Cheer our spirits… Disperse the gloomy clouds… Death’s dark shadows put to flight… Close the path to misery.

I need songs like this, ones that tell the truth about life and the world. George Bailey did too– and together we sing, “O come, o come, Immanuel.” Please.

If this isn’t the Christmas story, then I’m not really interested. And you shouldn’t be either.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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