The 1951 movie “A Christmas Carol” is based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel. It’s the fictional story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a business owner who idolizes wealth and mocks charity. Scrooge’s values, and the behavior emanating from them, isolate him from family and friends and make him miserable. Scrooge gets a wakeup call in the form of a nightmarish visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
“A Christmas Carol” highlights how certain character vices lead to relational isolation which results in dysfunction and death. This is in contrast to virtuous character that leads to human connection, thriving and life. Charles Dickens understood just how powerful human connection is and that it comes from the character strengths of compassion, empathy, generosity, kindness and magnanimity. These are character strengths and virtues we celebrate during the holiday season (and hopefully live year round).
The same themes of connection and character are explored in the 1946 holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The movie starred Jimmy Stewart and was directed by Frank Capra. Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is contrasted to that of Henry F. Potter, the selfish owner of the primary bank in town. At one point a frustrated George tells his sweetheart “I want to do what I want to do,” which is to travel the world. He never does, however, and comes to regret it when the Savings and Loan he leads nearly goes bust during the Depression. This triggers a crisis of confidence in George’s life. He wonders if Potter’s selfish character is wise and his own selflessness is foolish.
As in “A Christmas Carol,” the story’s protagonist receives a visit from the other side. When, in desperation, George wonders whether it would be better if he were not alive , an angel named Clarence appears. Clarence takes George to visit the future so he can see the misery Potter’s values afflict on the whole town were George not there to stand up to him and provide an alternative for people. In the end (spoiler alert), George’s family and friends rally around him to save the S&L — and the day. The experience gives George the conviction of character he needs to be an even greater leader of his S&L and in his community.
Scrooge and George’s stories convey great wisdom. During the inevitable difficult seasons in life, the human connections we have with family and friends help us get through. When we experience the support of family and friends and reflect on its meaning, it gives us a conviction about what character values are right and wrong. I wrote about my own similar journey in an essay entitled “Alone No Longer.”
The themes in these movies are very relevant today. With families separated by geography and divorce, distracted by information and media overload, and fewer people participating in spiritual communities and civic organizations, human connection and community have declined. This decline has corresponded to a decline in joy and rising anxiety and depression. Today, more people in America live alone than at any time in our history (28 percent of American households) and Americans consume half the world’s supply of medication for anxiety and depression although we comprise a mere 4.5 percent of the world’s population.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. This holiday season, take time to reflect on the message in these holiday movie classics. My hope is that you and those you love will be blessed by the productivity, prosperity and joy that come from having an abundance of connections in your lives.