“The George Bailey Effect.”

May 9, 2020

“The George Bailey Effect.”

May 29, 2023

When in doubt, watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While some might see it as just another schmaltzy Christmas movie, if you look a little closer, the film can generate a psychological strength based upon many of the virtues Jimmy Stewart portrays as George Bailey: loyalty, selflessness, resilience, and, ultimately, community hero.

Until recently, I’d never heard of “The George Bailey Effect,” even though I’d watched the movie multiple times. Clarence, the angel, takes George—who is on the verge of suicide—through a “Sliding Door” scenario of what his little town, Bedford Falls, would be like if George never existed. It is a journey poetically summed up with Clarence famously telling George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Many psychologists believe (and studies have shown) that imagining an alternative reality can create a deepened sense of commitment to our current path. This is a good thing. However, it can also do the opposite. It can bring up regret or remorse for paths not taken. In a “Navigating Transitions” workshop I read about, participants were instructed to reflect on both sides of the question concerning the transitions they faced. By focusing on “what if” the transitional event had not occurred they were able to articulate and express not only what was lost, but also the transformational aspects of their unexpected life situation—the new people they had met, the talents unearthed, and inner strength discovered in the process of getting through a rough experience. Of course, you don’t need an angel to tap you on the shoulder to try this exercise. It’s well worth the time.

I’ll be honest, there have been moments recently in which I have felt like George Bailey, who persevered to support his community through the Great Depression and World War II. There’s even the backdrop of the Spanish flu pandemic early in the film. With monthly costs of a closed MEA campus (and funding many hotels I still own that have had to close) and no real clarity on how soon people will feel safe traveling across borders, there are moments when it feels like my vision is just a pipedream in the era of the pandemic. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to the more than 750 alums who are now Johnny Appleseed’s of wisdom in their own communities. I hear the pain and suffering they’re going through during this time. It’s easy to doubt yourself.

But, who knows, maybe when we are ready to re-open our doors, the “modern elder” townspeople will rise up and support MEA (just like the citizens of Bedford Falls), and I will, once again, feel a renewed sense of the legacy for what this little midlife wisdom school has meant to so many.

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