There are some people whose absence is more deeply felt than their presence. They don’t light the room on fire when they walk into it because they are busy doing something far more vital. Without these people, the room doesn’t get built or rented or heated in the first place, and nobody gets invited.
These necessary people quietly make it all happen, not through bureaucratic genius but through collegiality, intelligence, stubbornness, hard work, and vision with a lowercase “v.” They constantly put it all on the line so that there can be a line.
This, I think, was the central insight of the Frank Capra Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey may not seem like much, says the director, but think again. Take a good look at the world that would exist had the Bailey Building and Loan president never been born. It is not a nice place.
Critics constantly and lazily remark on the movie’s sentimentality and corniness, which only convinces me they aren’t paying attention. The movie is dark. Death, suicide, violence, poverty, loss, and sacrifice are major themes. Sure, it has a happy ending, with little Zuzu and an angel getting its wings and all that, but that doesn’t seem foreordained.
I’m thinking about It’s a Wonderful Life because it’s that time of the year again and because, today, my father Bob Lott is 60. Sometimes I think of the old man as George Bailey minus the drama. Bob Lott is a Baptist minister, a father of three, and a man with the knowledge and determination to make things happen — often at great personal cost.
He wouldn’t like me talking out of school too much, but one story I will tell. In the Capra classic, George Bailey and his bride give up their honeymoon money to stop a run on the bank, but at least they had the money. My dad once did something far more reckless. I know because I was on the receiving end.
It was during my family’s darkest financial period. Bob Lott had served as a youth pastor in Tacoma, Washington, for about a dozen years. He resigned during my junior year of high school and spent a year-and-a-half doing every awful job under the sun while he looked for a new posting. He sold discount freight and vacuum cleaners and worked at a youth detention center, for instance.
At the time, I had little no idea what to do with my life except for the vague inkling that I might make an OK writer. But for that I needed a computer and nobody in my family had any money for one. My birthday rolled around and my family had scraped together enough money to buy what was technically a computer but practically not usable.
When Dad figured this out, he did something that was, on the face of it, insane. He went to the local Circuit City, slapped a credit card down on the counter, and said, “I need a new computer for my son.”
I came home and was completely freaked out by this brand spanking new computer. And I realized that I was going to have to find some way to make this “investment” pay off. When people ask why I became an author, editor, etc., that’s the answer.
You expect parents to stick themselves out, at least a bit, for their children, but my example is closer to the rule than the exception of the difference that the old man has made in the lives of his friends and parishioners. I won’t tell those stories because he doesn’t like to talk about it, and there’s only so much embarrassment I’m willing to subject him to on his birthday.
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