At the start of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a 12-year-old George Bailey jumps into ice-cold water to save his younger brother, Harry, from drowning in a sledding accident — a heroic action that costs George his hearing in his left ear. 

I was around that age when I started watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my parents every year, typically on Christmas Eve — which means I’ve seen the film at least 19 times. And that’s not counting the times I’ve seen it as a rerun on TV, or the times my editor has done his uncanny George Bailey impression in the office.

I can recite this movie line-by-line. Somehow, I always manage to cry at all of the same parts. And, without fail, I become a blubbering mess by the movie’s end, when Harry Bailey delivers his short but powerful toast: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” 

Watching it on a Sunday afternoon in 2020 was no different. But in a year when COVID-19 has been a dominating storyline, “It’s a Wonderful Life” took on new meaning for me. The film is 74 years old, but the story about a man who longs to get out of town — and who grows more and more disgruntled as his plans fall through — embodies what just about everyone has gone through during this trying year.

Quarantined in Bedford Falls

Clarence: You sent for me, sir? 

Senior Angel: Yes, Clarence. A man down on Earth needs our help. 

Clarence: Splendid. Is he sick? 

Senior Angel: No, worse. He’s discouraged.

Maybe it’s because the pandemic and mental health have been major issues this year — or the fact that I got tested for COVID-19 the day before watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” — but this passage at the start of the film really stuck out to me. 

More than half of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is spent introducing viewers to the plight of George Bailey, a man who wants nothing more than to leave the small town of Bedford Falls, New York, and see the world.

His eyes light up at the sound of train whistles. He keeps travel brochures in his coat pocket. 

“I just feel like if I didn’t get away I’d bust!” George tells his dad, who longs for his son to stay home and take over the family’s loan business. 

Having spent more time at home than usual this year, I really felt George’s pain each time an opportunity to leave Bedford Falls slipped away. 

When his father dies, George gives up a trip to Europe to stay home and tie up loose ends with the family business. To keep the wealthy, self-absorbed banker Mr. Potter from having control of everything in town (Potter is the true virus of Bedford Falls), George gives his college money to his younger brother and stays behind to run the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association. 

And, of course, there’s a run on the bank just as George is about to go on a honeymoon. George’s wife Mary — the true hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (more on that later) — gives up their $2,000 in honeymoon savings to save George’s business. 

In a nutshell, George never does get out of Bedford Falls. 

It’s a frustration that hits especially hard in 2020, when the pandemic has curtailed grand travel plans — on my end, I’ve pushed back a trip to my South Carolina hometown multiple times this year.

More than ever, I resonated with George’s desire to get out. And as heartbreaking as the scene always is to watch, it made George’s big meltdown in front of his family more relatable.

He’s spent his entire life sacrificing his own dreams and giving to the town of Bedford Falls. When Uncle Billy misplaces the company’s $8,000 on Christmas Eve, George is possibly stuck with prison time over a business he never wanted to work for in the first place. Despite all of his efforts, that business could end up collapsing with the entire town falling into the hands of the corrupt Mr. Potter. 

In this dark moment, discouragement keeps George from seeing the light around him. And as the angel says at the start of the film, that’s worse than any sickness.

Being contagious

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” 

The word “contagious” has become commonplace this year, both in news headlines and day-to-day conversations. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s become directly associated with COVID-19. 

But “It’s a Wonderful Life” reminded me that contagious has another definition — one not limited to the negative connotations of a disease. Attitudes and actions, like gratitude, kindness and love, can also be contagious.

In the last act of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like without him. His eyes grow wide with disbelief as he sees the friendly town of Bedford Falls become the seedy Pottersville. He wasn’t there to save his brother Harry from drowning in 1919 — a year that, coincidentally, was still feeling the effects of a flu pandemic. Harry, then, wasn’t around to become a World War II hero. 

George wasn’t around to make his boss at the local drug store, Mr. Gower, realize that he’d accidentally mixed poison with medication for a child. Mr. Gower went to prison for 20 years. 

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives,” the angel Clarence tells George. “When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

This year, especially, we’re seeing the power one person has to literally save lives and influence others for the better. To combat COVID-19 sickness, many people are sacrificing their own desires, forgoing usual activities and wearing masks out in public.

But in this time of physical distance and anxiety, people have also found ways to combat the kind of discouragement that overwhelms George in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Deseret News readers have shared numerous stories of neighbors checking in on each other, making sure people have what they need and coming to their aid when they’re lacking. 

The pandemic has brought about countless acts of service, revealing in the process that how you treat others is contagious. 

I had forgotten that until I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

The true hero

In George’s darkest hour, Mary, the quiet and even-tempered heroine, solicits the prayers of friends and family. She goes on to contact all of her husband’s friends and the people of Bedford Falls to chip in financially. Considering all George has done for them over the years, they don’t even hesitate.

In a short amount of time, Mary raises more than triple the amount George needs to get out of his bind. 

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I’ve always been slightly annoyed that Potter gets away with stealing the money Uncle Billy “misplaced” — although an old SNL skit went through great strides to rectify that wrong. In the end, though, maybe Potter’s greatest punishment is that he has no one to turn to should he end up in a bind like George. 

At the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George is surrounded by all of his loved ones. It’s an especially poignant scene during a time when such gatherings are largely nonexistent. But it reminded me of my own Bedford Falls — a community of people who have lifted me up again and again. That community stretches well beyond a single town. And while I may not be seeing a lot of these people in person this year, their love and encouragement are still there. It’s in the text messages and Zoom calls and handwritten letters and special gifts.

“No man is a failure who has friends,” Clarence says.

I understand that more than ever now.

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