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The Frank Capra movie “It’s A Wonderful Life”, that we just saw a clip from, has become a classic holiday film because it speaks to a number of ideals about life, hope and generosity – all of which resonate strongly at this time of year. If we hope to find any meaning from the holidays beyond gifts, shopping and festivities, we’re called to pause and reflect on the deeper values that underpin the “reason for the season.”
One particular value from this holiday film is that family bonds and togetherness are vitally important, especially at this time of year. Whether we have a happy holiday or not, much of that is determined by the community sharing we experience. And, like all holiday related values, the need for strong community ties in our lives is universal and extends throughout the year. Importantly, this depression era film asks us to consider: What constitutes a family and to whom are we to show love, care and concern?
In the Biblical New Testament Book of Matthew, Jesus is told by a group of his followers that his mother and brother were outside and wanted to see and speak with him. Jesus immediately asked the crowd, “Who is my mother? Who is my brother?” He looked around and then he extended his arms inclusively outward and told the crowd, “Behold, my mother, my brother, my sisters! Whoever does the will of God, he or she is my brother, my sister, my mother.”
If we believe that a historical Jesus did live, and that he taught universal values of what is good, true and right, then we can assume that his teachings were and are the will of God, or whatever higher power you choose to believe. What he taught his followers about family, therefore, was a radical change from what people of his time thought and, indeed, what we often believe today. Family is not just about blood ties or bonds of legal marriage. Family, for Jesus, was the people who cared for him, shared his values of concern for the outcast and the weak, and actively worked as he did to love, serve and give. Family was also the poor, sick, hungry and homeless. Jesus redefined what family is – from ties that bind due to blood ancestry to ties that bind because of affinity, common values, shared experiences and simple compassion.
And that is a recurring theme in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Wives, husbands, partners, children, grandparents and other blood relatives are important. But, one’s true and lasting family is ALSO comprised of those upon whom we relate to beyond birth and ancestry.
No matter the context of what comprises family for any of us, most psychologists assert that a communal family of some type, or lack of that, is the single most important incubator for who we become in life. Whatever functional or dysfunctional family unit to which we belonged as children, it is what teaches us (or fails to teach us) essential life coping skills – how to get along, negotiate, cooperate, share, serve and love. Studies show that families that encourage learning and education produce higher achieving children. Families that are secure, nurturing and accepting of individual differences produce better adjusted and more self-confident adults. Family or communal life also determines our overall health – it is the unit that often tends to our needs, encourages preventive medical care, hygiene and exercise. Families or similar communities are also primarily responsible for fostering positive characteristics of resilience, self-esteem, confidence and mental well-being. As a social structure, a family type unit is the primary and most important force in the formation and strengthening of our personalities, values and gender identity. Whatever form they take for any of us, from a kinship based family to a group like the Gathering, it’s clear that a caring and nurturing community is essential for our well being both as children and as adults. For better or for worse, family life of any type charts our path in life and largely determines who we are.
Such strong family or community ties are celebrated in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In a dark, frustrating and often sinister world that was depression era America, George Bailey, as the main character and played by everyman actor Jimmy Stewart, finds that his family and community of friends are the true sources of strength and meaning in his life.
Just as important, George comes to understand his own role in the drama of life – how he is ALSO a force for security and service to his wife, children, brother, parents, friends AND community. He forsakes a college education so his brother can have one. He abandons hopes to leave his town when he assumes leadership over the bank his father founded. He does so in order to save it and its community focused ideals from greedy capitalists. He oversees his bank’s lending so that community members can buy and afford homes. He and his wife forego a long planned honeymoon and use the money to cover the savings of bank customers. He saves his brother from drowning, prevents a young boy from being poisoned and, most importantly, saves Bedford Falls from being taken over by the tycoon capitalist Potter. George positively impacts the lives of countless people – many of whom gather in his home at the end of the movie to return the favor by rescuing him from financial ruin and possible prison. His focus was not just on his own personal interests or even on those of his small biological clan. His concern was for the larger tribe and community of people to which he belonged.
Like Jesus’ teachings, the film helps to redefine the notion of family. George’s real family are the friends and community members whom he served and who, in return, serve and love him. Far from being a movie about so-called traditional family values, “It’s A Wonderful Life” encourages us to consider the spirit of the holiday season in the light of Jesus’ teaching about family. We are to look around us as he did, out in the streets beyond our doors and windows, to find our family. We find there that family is a gay or lesbian couple, a single mom working to support her children, a single man or woman living alone, a foster family, a cohabitating couple, a lonely person in a nursing home, a sick child, a family huddled in the cold outside of the Freestore waiting for their food basket. Who, for us, is our mother, our brother, our sister?
For just a moment, indulge me as I brag about my daughter Sara. I love her no matter what, but Sara exhibits a kind of deep compassion for young children and those on the margins of life that touches and impresses me. Sara works at a home for mentally challenged women – many of whom are Medicaid wards of the state and have no relatives who visit or care for them. By most standards, they are all alone in life.
Every year at Christmas, Sara and her co-workers take the women in their care to nearby stores and allow them to pick out and buy a few items of their choice. The women don’t ask for much and most of what they pick out are small trinkets. Even so, this outing is anticipated weeks before and the event is a major highlight in the lives of the women residents. What is even more remarkable is that Sara and her co-workers pay for the items from their own personal funds. Like all of those who live in Medicaid facilities, the women residents have no money. And, like most social workers, Sara is not paid a lot for her work but she gives of her time and her resources to create a small Christmas moment for women who would otherwise have none.
And Sara is deeply loved by these women. They are drawn to her quiet and caring ways. She frequently must soothe their anxieties and act much like a mother to them even though, by age, they could be Sara’s mom or grandmother. Recently, one resident woman was to celebrate her birthday by going out to dinner with her sister. All day long, she asked Sara and other staff members when her sister would arrive and how much longer would she have to wait for her birthday celebration to begin.
Sadly, as often happens with most of these women, the sister never showed up and Sara had to console and comfort a confused and very upset resident. Sara had to be the one source of love to someone abandoned and mostly alone in the world. Life for such women and others like her is so very cruel and yet people like Sara soften a harsh world. For these mentally challenged women at Christmas, and for that one lonely woman on her birthday, Sara was and is family – she was and is mother, sister, brother, father.
This view of family is dramatically different from the traditional values and so called moral majority folks who tell us that a family is only defined by a mother and father living together and raising their biological children. Indeed, according to the 2010 United States census, such a so-called ideal American family comprises only 28% of all family units in the nation. Single parent families headed by women grew between 2000 and 2010 by 18%. Unmarried partner families grew by 41% in the same time period. Same sex partner families grew by over 50% and almost 30% of all household families in the US are now comprised of just one person. What is clear is that the definition of family is no longer what some describe as the traditional family of mother, father and children all living together. Family is where we are loved. Family is the place where we can show our love. Family members are the people who rely on us – and whom we rely on – to be there when troubled times happen.
As most of you know, I had surgery on my knee a few weeks ago. It was a simple procedure but, as my first significant health challenge and surgery, I was very anxious and nervous. Sara came and waited during my surgery and was there when I woke up. But it was Keith Murrell who took the day off work, waited with me until the late afternoon procedure, tried to calm and reassure me, filled my prescriptions, drove me home and spent the night to make sure I’d be OK. On one minor, frightening and potentially lonely day for me, Keith was my brother, father, mother, sister.
And, as much as some believe the changing dynamics of family spells the decline of basic morality and success of American culture, the opposite is actually true. Children and adults succeed and thrive in all forms of family where nurture, attention and love exist. It does not matter from whom it is given, love is love. Indeed, many sociologists assert that views of traditional family and marriage in western cultures originated not by natural evolution but because of value systems taught by Jewish and Christian religions. Thousands of years of actual experience indicate, however, that families from the beginning of time were far more fluid in terms of composition. Indeed, Jesus was from one of the most non-traditional and unorthodox of families – conceived out of wedlock with an uncertain father. Sociologists Maxine Zinn and Stanley Eitzen assert that “there is no golden age of the family gleaming at us in the far back historical past. Desertion by spouses, illegitimate children, and other conditions that are considered characteristics of modern times existed in the past as well.”
Three other respected sociologists also suggest that promoting so-called traditional families are actually harmful to the economic best interests of children and society. Their theory holds that as women increasingly delay or reject traditional family in order to advance their education and careers, contemporary family units that many women eventually build are more stable and financially secure. In other words, the success of women in the marketplace, when they delay marriage and having children, is directly tied to the well-being of families – no matter their composition. Encouraging women to marry and have children, at the expense of education and a career, is counterproductive. In today’s world, adoptive, single mom or same sex couples are often MORE capable of sustaining a viable family unit than many traditional families of mom, dad and kids. We see then that so called traditional families can no longer claim to be better for society or children. What matters is that children have a family unit of some kind.
Our values therefore tell us that birth and blood ties should not supplant universal values that encompass a concern for the well-being of others. Indeed, humanity long ago mostly rejected rights and privileges based solely on ancestry. Nobility, royalty, nepotism and patriarchal systems of power, inheritance and property ownership, determined by ancestry alone, are ancient relics destined for the dustbin of history. Instead, as I often point out, humanity is evolving with moral imagination toward greater cooperation between people. As we have seen, this is taking place with regard to the understanding of family but it is, ironically, a value taught two thousand years ago by the man whose birth we celebrate this season.
American culture does not thrive because of so-called traditional marriage, families and their alleged superior values. George Bailey’s town of Bedford Falls is not a caring community because George and his friends are married with children. America succeeds because of an expansive and inclusive understanding of family. It succeeds because a true family is just as Jesus described. A family member for him and for us is the one who hungers, who is sick, who mourns, who cries in loneliness, is an outcast, suffers in pain or works alongside us to help eliminate such misery. Family members are the people in our lives related not by blood but by heart.
In the upcoming holiday celebrations, may we remember who is our true mother, father, sibling and child. We need not forget or abandon those we love by kinship. But such people are only parts of our real and much, much larger family. This Hanukkah, this Christmas, in the spirit of the season, may we love, cherish and serve, AND SERVE! members of our one human family. Include someone who is not a blood relative, partner or spouse in your holidays and help fulfill the goal of making it a wonderful life for all…
I wish you each a happy Hanukkah and much peace and joy.