The movie It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, and so well known. There is even an It’s a Wonderful Life festival and museum in Seneca Falls, NY . The actors and actresses portray the characters in a way that makes them seem real. The movie is full of loss, but with a clear message of hope.
A quick summary of the movie is about George Bailey, a man who wanted to grow up, leave home and explore the world. He spends his life sacrificing his desires to help others and eventually decides to commit suicide on Christmas. This is because he was at risk of being arrested for not being able to account for $8,000.00 that belonged to his business. The money was actually stolen by an enemy of George’s. George leaves his home after having an anger outburst. He meets his guardian angel who shows him what life would be like if he hadn’t been born. He realized how many people he has helped and how many lives were impacted in a positive way by his good deeds and sacrifices. In the end all the people he helped joined together to raise the missing money to prevent him from being arrested.
I want to focus on George’s anger outburst. The anger outburst in the movie that I referred to includes him being distraught over the idea of going to jail and feeling helpless after years of making decisions that he feltbut felt were . His family was carrying on as usual when he arrived home, but he was preoccupied and not able to focus on their needs. He shook his wife, yelled at his wife and kids and was throwing things, which was out of character for George Bailey. He had become extremely angry, desperate, hopeless and felt trapped. If you’ve seen the move you know the scene seemed real. This is because it WAS REAL. Jimmy Stewart, who played George Bailey, had recently returned from World War 2 and was experiencing PTSD. He was experiencing nightmares nightly and was having flashbacks, had difficulty focusing, and was not able to eat most foods. His acting became an outlet for his PTSD, and was a way to release his emotion in a healthy, structured environment. It’s A Wonderful Life was his first acting job after returning home from war, and it was apparent to many if not all on the set that he was experiencing what we call PTSD but was not known as PTSD at the time.
Jimmy Stewart’s story is an example of how powerful PTSD can be. Many can relate to the loss of control and hopelessness Stewart experienced personally while portrayinbg George Bailey. His story is also a reminder of how much trauma is stored in the body and the need for mind body healing. Many people try to avoid working through their pain, but that is the only way to heal. Jimmy Stewart could not prevent his PTSD from showing and movie staff actually said Stewart was not acting, meaning his responses were real, not acted out.
Like Stewart, you will not be able to completely stop triggers and accompanying emotions from surfacing. You will need to find a way to let yourself feel the emotions and use skills to deal with them and let them out appropriately, like Stewart did. This is because triggering and responses are related to the brain and vagal nerve. You cannot stop your brain from being triggered, and it only takes recognition of one sense to trigger a body response. Meaning, if you see, smell, hear, taste or feel something you’ve experienced in a traumatic situation your body remembers and goes into a survival mode to protect you. This includes the fight, flight or freeze response and hypervigilence among others. Because your brain controls how your body responds, you cannot change that, but instead recognize it, work through it, and let it go. The key will be figuring out what the trigger was and working through it. If you try to shove the triggers and emotions away you will not learn how to control triggers; they will control you. By facing your triggers and using grounding skillls and other skills tsuch as writing, drawing, acting, or sports you can ground, express and move forward. As you work through your pain, it gets easier to control and there is less fear and more hope involved in the process.
George Bailey was loved and supported by many. His outburst was forgiven and he was able to recover and feel joy again. He could not take away the pain or loss experienced. He could not take back anything he said or did that he regretted. But he chose life, love and to move forward. We all can learn from George Bailey and decide to embrace the present despite the pain of our past. We can all choose to cope and continue moving forward even when we suffer unjust treatment, abuse or emotional pain. It can be exhausting but the freedom, peace and good that comes from it is worth it.
Christmas can be a difficult time for many who are living in traumatic situations. Jimmy Stewart once said Christmas “has come to be connected with Santa Claus, gifts, lights, decorations, trees. We may be guilty of forgetting that Christmas is really the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.” There is always hope in Jesus. He loves you with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3), and because of his birth and his death for our sins, we are able to be forgiven of all sins and made new and white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). That makes every Christmas special and every Christmas filled with hope. Your past is not your life, and a new beginning is possible every day in Jesus.